Portraits reveal what, exactly?
If you have access to the Annie L. film, Life through a Lens, you will see this thing discussed by some prominent people in the world of media.
The view they seem to express (my own, incidentally), is that portraiture never shows squat about anyone that’s mystical, deep and revealing about the subject. What you get, at best, is an impression of what the models think you want them to show or, more likely, of something that they are keen to project as a public face. It’s why celebs are so easy to shoot: they have developed their ‘image’ and it comes naturally after a while. Easy. For both parties: model and shooter.
As for the photographer’s input, a portrait reveals a helluva lot more of him/her than of the subject: he guides his subject, uses his lights and eye and photographic possibilities to get what he thinks he wants to get. Outwith publicity shots, it’s a structure built from two opposing and pretty much mutually exclusive ambitions.
In that sense, a confrontational street shooter has a better chance of catching genuine ‘character’ than any portraitist.
Landscape. What character can one have? It has structure. It gets daylight or even, heaven forefend, moonlight. None of those lighting effects have any valid claim to creating character. It’s a matter of insentient materials and how they happen to look under different climatic conditions. Not character. It has no meaning; it just is for that period of time. Intrinsically meaningless.
Take the camera to the cities and you get all the character you could hope for. You get displays of massive ego, from the city fathers and the industrialists; from the bankers and the vanity of museum complexes to the architects who create the structures for all of them. Unbridled ego and projections of greed, avarice, pride and overwhelming confidence. That many such things get torn down a few years later because they are fatally flawed from birth doesn’t matter in the general photographic scheme of things: more to capture! Northern Britain is especially good at that rapid turnaround of in and out; I wonder how many versions of the infamous Gorbals the fine citizens of Glasgow will eventually have to pay for in the future? Manchester seems to be doing strange things too…
Newcastle-upon-Tyne has a gigantic figure of a man with what looks like a model glider wing-set; a Scottish town – if memory serves – is spending a fortune on two tin horse-heads of Trojan proportions. This, in a land where many people are fighting to find the money to pay the rent… that’s some character display of the priorities of those public bodies who commission this stuff.