Portraits–Contextual Research & Reflection

As part of my Contextual Studies (though ‘Struggles’ might be a better title!) I have been in e-mail exchange with my tutors for both modules over the last few weeks.  I don’t propose to get into the detail here, but the essence of it is a continuing difficulty that I seem to have in clearly articulating the link between the Body of Work that I’m producing and the relevant and appropriate ‘Context’.  I don’t have a problem with the work I’m producing; I don’t have a problem with the background ‘theory’ that I’m studying; I don’t have a problem with finding photographic, and other, artistic comparisons; but wrapping all of that together into a structured form for all aspects of my Body of Work is proving tough (for me, anyway!).  One agreed action is that, as part of my next BoW Assignment, I will produce a ‘draft’ Artist Statement/Proposal that might, for the time being, focus on the Portraits. (I have pretty much concluded in my own mind that these are Portraits that happen to feature me, rather than portraits of me.)

Looking for a way to get into that statement, I was reflecting on the Portraits’ relevance to, or relationship with, the billions of photographic images that are being used to represent ‘identity’ across the internet.  The line I was taking was … ‘Google my name and some of these versions of my identity come up … so why do we attach any credence to the images that come up against any other name Googled …?’  Needs expanding, but it is a possible line, at least.  To back that up with a bit of further research, I ‘created’ eight ‘random’ names (by writing various first names and surnames down on pieces of paper and combining them at random).  It certainly wasn’t scientific, but I thought I would then enter each of those names into Google Images and see what came up.  I simply copied the photos of each of the first three or four under each name, into a document, as follows:

Images - others-1

Images - others-2

Images - others-3

These names were, I stress, created randomly.  I had guessed, and this confirms, that one can quickly generate a range of posed portraits, publicity shots, selfies created on the phone, scanned images from the archive, snapshots, news photos etc (as in my own Portraits).  I haven’t included any supporting text here, but the range of backgrounds is enormous, for such a small sample – business, academic, sport, broadcasting, ‘celebrity’, glamour model (try picking that one out!) and (amazingly) serial killer!  And, naturally, many are simple social media images with little or no supporting information.  Strangely, I also sense some degree of ‘pattern’, if that’s the right word, under each name!  If you want to be famous, don’t use the name Fiona Kerry, for example – though Chris Lewis might be a promising choice!

Does it help me to contextualise my own Portraits?  It is certainly part of my purpose to explore the manner in which the photographic portrait image is used to present identity in the 21st century.  Studying the psychoanalytical angle on identity – Lacan, particularly – tells us that the whole formation of our ego/identity is based on the image, and a misread image, at that.  This little piece of work demonstrates something of the way in which we present ourselves, visually, to the ‘rest of the world’ (as loosely defined by the internet!).  And, superficially at least, the perceived indexical photograph is at the heart of matters.  Yet Photography is going through an uncertain, self-conscious process of navel-gazing – certainly in some quarters – and is perhaps even less ‘reliable’ than it ever was as a basis for representation (of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ etc).  My own Portraits hope to demonstrate how easy it is to represent ‘identity’ through digital photographic processes, yet how unreliable they are at representing something to which we can lend any credence at all.

At another level, many, if not all, of these images, circling the hyper-real world of the internet, are never meant to be anything more than superficial representations anyway.  The selfies on social media get changed regularly; the publicity shots of any celebrity are myriad, so take your choice of identity.  At which point, these images and the billions of others in the ‘soup’ from whence they came, might become representative of the fruitless search for the lost ‘something’ to which we are all, again according to psychoanalytics, condemned.  I have already documented that one original drive for these self-portraits (deliberately dropped that word back in) came from a personal observation that nothing had ever happened to me, none of the (supposed) trauma that artists often point to as the source of their inspiration for a particular piece of work, or indeed their whole body of work.  And another was the ‘disconnect’ between the stories in my old Newsbook and the person I seem to be now.

I have, though, resisted – and continue to resist – the idea that these Portraits are about ‘me’ (beyond the simple notion that there is something of all of us in all of our creative work).  They could also, though, be read – rather like the collection above – as a random cross-section of characters from ‘today’.  Whilst they are masquerade/fiction, they could, because they retain a loose link to ‘reality’, be interpreted as a commentary on where the ‘baby-boomers’ are today.  Coming almost full-circle, I have always intended that the images themselves would be just ‘seductive’ enough to tempt the viewer to see some element of ‘reality’ in there, be it about ‘me’, themselves, their generation, or friends and family.  And we return to the seductive yet unreliable photographic image.

I don’t know whether this is getting me closer to resolving matters. It’s proving to be a tough journey – perhaps no tougher than I expected but certainly tougher in a different way.


4 thoughts on “Portraits–Contextual Research & Reflection

  1. Yiannitsa Cegarra

    Interesting post! And may I say, I’m on that boat too. I received the letter from HO about my elusive CS assignment1. Must make an effort and contact my tutor; I’m just not ‘there’ and unsure about ‘where’ I fit.

  2. jsumb

    “In fact,those who most seem to be themselves appear to me people impersonating what they think they might like to be, believe they ought to be, or wish to be taken by, whoever is setting standards” a quotation from ‘The Counterlife’ by Philip Roth – an introduction to Chapter Three “Fabricated Identities: Placements” by Richard Brilliant. By the way, Chapter Two is entitled “Fashioning the Self”.
    Not sure that referencing another source for contextualising the work will help in any way, but it is a very good text for studying portraiture.
    For my two-penneth and for what it’s worth, I would say that my take on this work is that it is autobiographical. Inasmuch as all photographs have a deal of self portraiture in them, the fact that you use yourself as the model albeit in a reconstructed way, can only be as a result of a collaboration with the sub-concious?
    Your edit of the ‘google found portraits’ is also interesting in that you’ve curated them as all head and shoulders because when I looked they were many different poses, some not people altogether, but buildings! Interesting.
    Not sure if it helps but I still haven’t found the light switch yet for CS (though I haven’t yet started to look for it as I’m still trying to work out where the BoW will start 🙂 )

    1. standickinson Post author

      Hi John; thanks for the further references – I’ll certainly, at least, take a look.
      I did say in the post that there is bound to be something of ‘me’ in the work – that is inevitable. I can’t prevent you (or anyone else) reading them as autobiographical – that is also, I suspect, inevitable; but I can stick to my authorial guns and stress that they’re not ‘about’ ‘me’. Other, that is, than as an expression of my firm belief that existence is performance – mine included! 🙂 (… back to your Roth quote!)
      I haven’t, I assure you, curated to select head and shoulders. I left out repeats (of the same person); ignored people of a different version of the name (including an architect with Owen or Owens in his name, for whom there were hundreds of pictures of buildings); and did give up on a couple of images that took ages to download, plus one or two where the link went nowhere. But I never pretended it was ‘scientific’.
      The CS light has been flickering a little this afternoon – but the difficulty, I find, and it will be interesting to see how others get on, is that at one level, almost everything seems as if it might be contextually relevant; yet as I go through a ‘filtering’ process, I always seem to end up at a point that is so general as to say little or nothing.
      Good luck with the BoW, which I am following.


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