contemporary portraiture

Contemporary Portraiture
Contemporary Portraiture
Contemporary Portraiture
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    M ler- i.~ c rContemporaryPortraitureby Diana GastonAs confounding as portraiture has always been, it seems to be getting trickier,

    with photographers making increasingly sumptuous and ambiguous images.These portraits secure not so much an individual likeness but an emblematic pres-ence. For many decades, photographic portraiture was shaped by the immediacy ofthe medium and its capacity for extremely intimate, casually framed images or, atthe opposite end of the spectrum, passing grab-shots of strangers observed fromsafe distances. Formal portraiture was reserved for celebrities or momentous occa-sions like weddings or new babies. It is curiously jarring, then, to be confronted byfull-length portraits of seemingly unposed, even indifferent subjects handled soformally that the prints themselves approach the imposing scale, luminous color,compositional structure, and gravity of traditional portrait painting.Photographers Jocelyn Lee, Rineke Dijkstra, and Hellen Van Meene produce justthis kind of exquisitely unsettling work, expanding on the genre through surpris-ingly traditional means. Their beguiling portraits borrow from the formal conven-tions of painting, lending a certain temporal permanence to their subjects whilemaintainingthe potency of the open-ended photographic narrative.

    A young boy lies outstretched, naked, on a green lawn, flower petals scatteredaround him like a loose constellation. His eyes are closed, mouth slightlyparted asthough in sleep; his flawless white skin glows faintly. He floats, in a dream state,utterly relaxed and unbounded, a physical embodiment of childhood innocence andgrace. His reclining form dictates the horizontal composition, and the camera hov-ers over him, standing guard while he sleeps. Is this a portrait of a boy or a person-ification of youthful perfection? What can we see in a portrait of an unknown sit-ter but our own narratives, constructed around subjective notions ofphysical beau-ty an d human expression? Jocelyn Lee constructs her images around such ambigu-ities, training her camera on the vast human theater, drawing ou t not so much afixed document or record of a sitter but the psychological intricacies that shiverthrough the body.Lee, who lives in Maine and will begin teaching at Princeton University thisfall, photographs family members as well as unknown subjects whom she meets forthe first time on the day she photographs them. She deliberately maneuvers b ackand forth between levels of intimacy and unease, seeking out the challenges thateach scenario presents. For years, she has taken out newspaper ads seeking mod-els willing to sit, sometimes unclothed, for a portrait. She scouts ou t her locationsbeforehand and typically looks for minimal, unobtrusive environments, such ashotel rooms or certain outdoor sites. The environment significantly informs thetone and atmosphere of the sitting; the simpler the space, the more the viewer willfocus on the individual and psychological exchange of the portrait for pertinentclues. Lee works with a medium format camera, setting up and waiting, as shedescribes it, for he r subjects "to breathe their own life into the room." She offers lit-tle in the way of direction, preferring to wait for the moment when the subject'sawareness of the camera falls away and some underlying emotion or gesture pres-ents itself, momentarily disrupting the sitter's carefully prescribed persona. This-the camera's ability to capture a momentary expression-is the hallmark of the pho-tographic portrait; and yet Lee seems to reject the fleeting expression in exchangefor something much more cumulative, framing a distant stare or a positioning ofthe body that has taken a lifetime to cohere.

    Jocelyn Lee, Untitled (BeaverAnatomy), C-print, 40 x 50", 2002.Courtesy of the Bemard Toale Gallery.

    Like her Dutch contemporaries Rineke Dijkstra and Hellen Van Meene, Lee isparticularly drawn to photographing the provocative shifts experienced in aging,motherhood, and adolescence. One of Lee's portraits depicts a middle-age womanwith long dark hair sitting on a sofa in a formally appointed New England home,her gaze falling flatly on the middle space of the room. She wears a sheer, black lacenegligee and tall, black leather boots, her clothing deeply encoded with sexualexpectation and fantasy at odds with her resigned posture and staid environment.Her feet are positioned at an awkward angle, as though she might stand up to leaveat any moment, but her flaccid expression suggests that she is nowhere close togathering the momentum to move.

    Dijkstra, who lives and works in Amsterdam, photographs subjects who haverecently experienced particularly stressful or physically dangerous situations-Israeli soldiers after engaging in combat, women after childbirth, and Portuguesematadors still bloody an d bruised from their encounters in the ring-as a means ofcapturing individuals whose self-consciousness has been momentarily strippedaway. For several years she photographed adolescents posed in their bathing suitsat the beach-clearly a less perilous situation, but one that offered the subjects lit-tle to hide behind. The young subjects are presented in full-length portraits, isolat-ed within the frame, the ocean behind them. She grants them the authority of posi-tioning themselves, leaving each one to openly display varying degrees of awk-wardness and poise. The young girls she photographed at Coney Island and HiltonHead Island self-consciously assume poses they've studied in fashion magazines,while their counterparts in Eastern Europe and Belgium present themselves to thecamera without any pretense; one young woman, pale an d thin, mimics the graceof a Botticelli without a shred of irony.

    These photographers, in very distinct ways, look for slight breaks in their subject's composure,seeking thephysicaland emotionalvulnerabilities hat surface only when their minds begin towander or when they lose interest in the camera.

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    Van Meene, who lives and works in Alkmaar, Netherlands, photographs adolescent girls as they grapple with the tenuousmiddle ground between childhood and physical maturity. Her subjects are brooding and withdrawn from the camera, uncertainintheir own skin. One young Dutch subject poses in a pair of sheer pantyhose, distractedly pinching the skin on her upper arm.Despite her scant clothing and long, flowinghair, she does not seem so much sensuous as uncomfortable, preoccupied with herpersonal demons more than any imposition the camera might pose.

    These photographers all handle their subjects gently, with empathy and a genuine regard for the vulnerable space betweenthe body and the lens. Even the youngest subjects engage in a performance while being photographed, animating the image

    through some fantasy or-narcissistic narrative of theirown. Much of this work explores the uneasy riftbetween notions of self and the camera's blatant repre-sentation, or, as Diane Arbus has described it, 'the gapbetween intention and effect." Dijkstra expands on

    m-i mi this particular frailty that the camera invariably catch-es,,saying,"'People think that they present themselvesone way, but they cannot help but show something else

    'g g ; i Xasell. It's impossible to have everything-under con-~~4~1 ~ . trol." These photographers, in very distinct ways, lookfor slight breaks in their subject'scomposure, seekingthe -physicaland emotional vulnerabilities that surfaceonly when their minds begin to wander or when they

    - - '~~~ lose interest in the a e a a lak of self-c n io s"v' : ness-or a strident, authentic self-emerges. In one of

    Lee's more challenging portraits, we are confronted bythe direct stare of a naked woman seated on anunmade be,d in a nondescript room. It seems only fair,given her vulnerable state, that she would be armed/ f ; -? .t0 {against the camera with a penetrating gaze. Her[E ; '1;r;11- 4 expression is composed, even defiant, yet her body

    Hellen van Meene, Untitled'(No. 97), C-print, 153/8 x15 3/8, 2000. Courtesy of belies her discomfort; she sits awkwardly, slightlythe Matthew Marks Gallery. hunched, hands at he r sides, resigned, her skin bracedagainst a slight chill.

    Many of the subjects who pose for Lee and Van Meene avert their eyes, instinctively shifting the balance of power by refus-ing to meet the camera's dull, staring eye. In one of Lee's recent images, a young woman closes he r eyes, retreating into her ownemotional space. She wears a bold stars-and-stripes bikini and strikes a glamorous pose against a towering smoke tree in fullbloom. A pair of shorts are tossed carelessly to one side, seemingly removed for the photograph but nevertheless incorporatedinto the frame of the image. Her closed eyes and lax mouth suggest her assurance bu t also an unnerving indifference to thecamera. Her stance implies that she is complicit in the act of being photographed, and yet she has removed herself into a placeof private rapture, locking her eyes against the physical world and the camera's intrusion.

    While Lee's subjects do no t alwaysmake eye contactwiththe camera,her presence-ormore accuratelythe scopicpresenceof the camera--is still quite palpable. In one of her few titled pieces, BeaverAnatomy, two girls crouch over a wet, presumablydead beaver in a clearing in the woods. They have laid him ou t on brown paper; a magnifying glass and Xacto knife are arrangednearby like a surgeon's instruments, signaling the scientific inquiry that is about to play out bu t also hinting at some impend-ing violence. The camera hovers above the girls, who are distracted and unaware of its presence. The image is composed like a'traditional pastoral painting, with heavy tree branches framing the view. In this medium, however, the framing device is mud-dled by the camera's de