Confrontation - Portraiture
by Pere Formiguera

Source - Issue 9 - Autumn - 1996 - Click for Contents

Issue 9 Autumn 1996
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View photographs by: Christopher Taylor ▸

The portrait is, above all, the artistic manifestation of an instant of ritual confrontation, the discovery of another person and a three sided dialogue.

To start with, you do not have to be very perceptive to see that when two people meet, and one has to make a portrait of the other, two different and opposing roles are immediately established; roles that are inevitably destined to enter into conflict. One of the two participants, the photographer, will become the active element. The photographer will choose the light, decide the setting, and choose the best time and place to press the shutter. In other words, the photographer will be in charge.

The other, the subject of the photograph, usually submits to the technical manipulations of the photographer. The subject is not, however, resigned to becoming merely a passive element and as a personal decision, the subject selects the image to be offered to the camera. The subject is willing to pretend, even to deceive in order to give the photographer the image that he or she believes to be best.

The battlefield is set. A battlefield in which the photographer and the subject will attempt to impose their own criteria and their own personal concepts of how to compose the portrait and of what should be the end result of the session. It should be said that the two parties are almost never in complete agreement and that they will probably continue in dispute, even after the work is finished.

Herein lies the greatness of the portrait. It is a human confrontation. The dialogue we spoke of at the beginning will be expanded with the inevitable intervention of a third person who though in theory will not be involved, will end up giving the definitive meaning to the result (good or bad) of the photograph. This third party is the spectator who observes, judges, and finally ends the discussion by agreeing with one person or the other - or with neither.

The spectator is charged with acknowledging the representational value of the portrait. This does not mean simply deciding whether the portrait looks like the subject or not. This possibility (of a resemblance) is more appropriate in other artistic disciplines. In photographs, all the subjects look like themselves, even if only the spectators are able to recognise them, or to admit to their existence due to the characteristics of the medium itself. But it is more than that. The real problem is not the resemblance, but the recognition of authenticity. When the spectator accepts, by a particular gesture, a look,, or whatever, that the person in the photograph is 'really him or her', then the portrait can truly be considered a success.

However recognition is not the only purpose of the portrait. It may even be the least important. Knowing is always more important than recognising. What happens, then, when we are unable to make the comparison between photographic reality and our own reality? What is the real importance of the physical or spiritual resemblance when you do not know the subject of the portrait? Obviously, if you cannot make the comparison, then the identification factor becomes much less important.

Nevertheless, a portrait always draws us to it. It disconcerts us and we consider it to be almost magic. Especially as, in our role of spectators, we have the privilege of witnessing the outcome of the battle we spoke of before. We become 'voyeurs' of a dialogue that, although still alien to us, is rich in humanity and fascinating in artistic terms. Let us imagine now what the subject of the photograph is really like. What kind of person is the photographer who has been able to depict this person in such a tangible manner. We use our personal experience to construct our own hypotheses. From this point of view, we the spectators, also become creative beings.

If, in addition, the portrait is not only the product of a sporadic encounter between the photographer and the subject , but is repeated once, twice or many times at different moments and with different points of view, then it becomes even more complicated. The amount of information contained therein is multiplied and our attempt as spectators to gain knowledge is made even more complex.

This is the case of Christopher Taylor. The most attractive aspect of his work is probably his development of the concept of his meeting with the subject, and the way he has of getting close to him, of establishing a rewarding relationship. His way of working sometimes brings to mind a kind of hunt. An initial cautious approach becomes more aggressive and predatory. It is almost an attack on the subject, as much a friendly relationship as ferocity without respite. We ask ourselves who the subject is. What relationship does he have with the author? Or is it, and why should it not be, a self portrait of Christopher Taylor himself? The persistence with which he photographs and re-photographs the same face over and over, almost obsessively, makes us think of a great but unassuming friendship.

Like the spectators we are, we look again at the different pictures of the same person. And when we think we are beginning to get to know him, even if only superficially, he reappears chameleon-like in the next photograph, disconcerting us completely again. This is because Christopher Taylor has the ability to pass from the concrete to the evocative, from the evidential to the dream, and from what seems familiar to us to something more incomprehensible.

If the normal attitude of the portrait artist is to place himself in front of the subject and declare battle, then in this case I have the feeling (from the pictures) that Christopher Taylor uses trickery to gain victory. He gets close to his subject and then eludes him. He unfocuses and makes it clearer for us. He moves away and then gets closer again. He converts the disconcertion of his exposure into our own perturbation, completing in this way the magic circle of a work of art.

Christopher Taylor does not show us a series of portraits. He is 'making' a single portrait. A great and marvellous portrait of himself and of those of us who are now observing these photographs. His model, now a resource, triplicates himself and becomes in one stroke, a mystery model, to the photographer and the spectator. We can imagine we are the photographer and the photographer is the spectator in this huge confusion. All in a kind of total space we all share. This is the greatness of the portrait.

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