Portraits and Personality

9th June 2014

Having just completed the exercise of ‘Self Portrait’, I found it raised quite a number of issues which are difficult to answer satisfactorily.  Even with the help of the course reader on the subject it only brought up more questions which don’t have any apparent answers.

Making an image to attempt to portray the personality of the subject I found was at best unsatisfactory and, in reality, probably impossible to capture the whole personality in any one image, or even a large number.  The trouble with personality is that it’s subjective and liable to change through time, with experience, events, mood and a whole host of other factors; so how does anyone attempt to capture the impossible, the ephemeral, the ever-changing?  I don’t think you can, and it would seem that everyone who tries ends up chasing a ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ and has to settle for parts, pieces, glimpses.

Richard Avedon, in his series ‘The American West’, attempted to use deadpan portraiture to capture the essence of the working class American living in the Western United States.  To me he captured a truly wonderful series of images which I could spend hours looking at and find something new every time, but without the support of the clothing they wear no information about their individuality escapes the image, unless they have that sort of visage which lends itself to portraiture and lets a portion of the character of its owner appear without trying, and this is usually through lined and well-worn faces or truly saddened eyes, but even then the only personality that can be ascribed is the one the viewer makes up for them, for without words to describe their personality we know absolutely nothing about how they tick.  Cindy Sherman has made innumerable images of fictitious people from her imagination and we as the consumers have looked and attempted to interpret them from our own experience, which when applied to fictitious people is very surreal as they have no personality of their own in the first place, analysed and written down, to even contemplate judging our interpretation by.

I found that it was possible to outwardly demonstrate some obvious personality traits such as, anger, sadness, love, thoughtfulness, the more obvious and easy to define emotions.  But emotions aren’t the only parts of our personality and more nebulous, subtle ideas such as integrity, friendship, conservatism, reticence can’t be seen as easily from an image.  If that is the case then it becomes clear why portraiture cannot capture the essence of anyone’s personality.

That being so, what can portraiture achieve?  It can provide a likeness of the subject at a single instant in time, it provides and identification template.  It can also capture some of the personality of the person, as has been discussed above, and can show that subject in a setting that is either true to their situation or a complete fallacy, designed to inflate the subjects ego or deceive.

If all this is then true, why is it that just about everyone on the planet, at some time or another, has either had a portrait made of themselves, or someone they love or respect?  I think the simple answer is that we like to be reminded of those people and from our individual knowledge of them we are able to see their personality within those images we treasure.

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