Apologies, I could not resist the opportunity to paraphrase McCoy from Star Trek. Still, through various studio/portraiture-based workshops I have conducted and interactions with photographers, this line of thought is common. Typically the usual riposte I get when asking photography students to sit in front of the camera is on the lines of ‘I’m a photographer so I’m behind it not in front…!’
My line of reasoning then is telling them that to be a portrait photographer you must go through the process. You must understand what it is like to be in front of the lens and relinquish your power to another. And it is the power and control element that fundamentally drives a portrait photographer. Take note, they are in charge, dictating the lighting, the pose and the focus, then at a precise moment firing the shutter, capturing a moment that is theirs and theirs alone.
‘You must understand what it is like to be in front of the lens and relinquish your power to another.’
So why are photographers reluctant to pose in front of a camera, is it an awkward shyness, low self esteem, stubbornness or a fear of losing their mortal soul and having it trapped on a piece of celluloid or a JPEG file? Whatever it may be, get over it! We live in the most photographed period in history, with our image most likely captured daily without us knowing it. However when we are behind the camera we are in control so why would anyone want to give that up?
It’s through this notion of power and control that photographers are exploring alternative avenues of the portraiture process. By taping into other organic elements, they are exploring in a sense the idea of a controlled chaotic environment. They are letting go of some of their power yet they set the boundaries in which this chaos can take effect. Two such photographers have used audio and sound as stimuli and catalyst; by bringing in this other sensory element, the shifted power balance has allowed for some interesting and thought provoking modes of practice.
The first photographer is Bettina Von Zwehl in which her series ‘Alina 2004’ is the very embodiment of this organic process. In ‘Alina’ Zwehl has almost total control over her models, she positions them and carefully sets the environment to such a meticulousness degree. Yet the addition of a piece of music titled ‘Für Alina’ allows the sitter to become a listener, thus altering their reaction to the portrait process. The sitter is enveloped by a piece of music, which during the second part a sudden explosion of flash occurs capturing them at an unpredictable moment. The images portray a deep sense of emptiness; they have been stripped of identity and laid bare to reveal nothing. You question their mute state, wondering what has and possibly what will happen.
Now with Billy Hunt and his series ‘Scream Portraits’ taken with his ‘Screamotron 3000’ more control and power is given to the sitter, in which the only way their photo is taken is through the power of them screaming. Through a boom-box, a microphone and a trigger the person in front of the camera has to scream load enough to reach a certain decibel limit to enable the camera to fire. The images portray a very raw and energetic feel; the sitter is now caught in both audio and physical motion, frozen to reveal an escaping violence.
Through understanding or just knowing the process in which portraits are made, does it change our outlook on the perceived roles of photographer and model? Can we, or do we need to understand the complex social dynamics of this authoritative process or can we simply just enjoy looking at pictures of people.
To be continued…