MB: In your view, what makes a compelling portrait?
RA: A great portrait is as much about what it is not as what it actually is.
Most importantly it is not a truthful representation of the subject. It is impossible to represent the enormity of a human beings life as a moment. All we can do is explore our relationship with the subject in that moment. It is important to acknowledge that the photographer’s presence and our own history is an infection of any objective truth. We can choose to interpret another person’s life imbuing the image with elements that allude to the personality of the sitter, especially with a commissioned portrait of the famous but this is only one trick that is useful in editorial representation of others.
As I suggested earlier, in exploring any sense of truth we must be aware of our own influence on the subject. I must recognize that I maybe drawn only to aspects of personality that I think I find valuable or engaging but these should not be considered to be universal. We can expel a lot of energy in forcing square pegs through round holes and often end up with an unsuccessful result because we are not able to adapt to the changing landscape during the evolution of the relationship with the sitter. In the preparation for a commission like David Cronenberg I immersed myself in his films in an attempt to silently empathize with him and reach a form of unspoken understanding so that I could ask him to do something, which felt very risky. In recognizing and accepting the premise that the nature of photography as such is a record of many complex interwoven realities in any given moment, we must ‘become’ the protagonist that takes the image. We must grow and learn and through learning change the way we view our known universe and the images will be genuine and others will feel something regardless of whether they agree with, understand or accept the aesthetic.
We must examine our relationship to beauty and normative aesthetics, we must understand ‘Les règles du Jeux’ the rules of engagement in capturing a portrait if we wish others to engage also. It is vital to explore the history of portraiture in all mediums so we can analyze in the moment what these rules are that we maybe unconsciously accepting as a convention. One must know a rule to break it.
Perhaps the first rule of portraiture is that the subject is somehow complicit in the process, they have agreed to be part of a process but it is up to the photographer or artist as to how much of collaboration exists. I choose to withhold most information from the sitter as I recognize that my agendas are both conscious and sub-conscious in so far as I often may not understand my own motives in the immediate moment. A successful and engaging portrait must be complicit in some way but also explore the subject in documentary form and in this regard I am drawn to a ‘new objectivist’ approach, I explore the vulnerability of a subject as they reveal themselves to the camera in the early moments of a session, I am careful to not allow the normative rules of social engagement to apply, I resist the natural inclination to assist the subject in their adjustment to the new environment that they are being invited into, even in their own homes; suddenly they are a guest in my space and this brief window of vulnerability exposes some of the very personal processes that an individual falls back on to protect themselves and there is a truth here but it is more of an existential shared truth.
A great portrait is as much about the artist as the sitter it is a synergy, a collaboration conscious or otherwise and the camera records the nuance of the human engagement that we read silently and is often beyond analysis but it can be visceral and deeply moving. We are sensitive monkeys and we can read an emotion, a lie and a truth in a primal way.
MB: What attracts you to a potential subject?
RA: Everyone is a potential subject; I will often begin a project work in a linear direction and see what subjects appear in my path. A successful portrait must have elements within that are ambivalent, i.e. many layered. I look to a subject and collaborate with them in one context whilst being aware of their value to the greater body of work that represents my practice. I have a filter, which is refined through life experience that all images (before and after they are shot) must pass. It is a filter that is refined through my own deeply personal story and the shared reality of being in the world. In the search of vulnerability the most successful subjects are those that are most challenged by conventional reality. The camera can record this complex relationship in the exploration of every aspect of their outward appearance as form of first defense. So very often teenagers and young people are very useful, as they have not yet fully developed the complex personas to defend against reality or they are playing with personas in an attempt to find comfortable exterior to hide behind.
Also, the disabled and those with mental health problems, those with non-normative sexuality or gender, those considered as any form of minority in fact anyone who dares to face who they are and attempt to be themselves or are forced to stand their ground in the face of a world often defined by commercialism as two dimensional are worthy of celebration. In a multi cultural universe the normatives are mere equals as part of this world view and deserve attention too but as equals irrespective of their arrogance and self importance, in fact this is equally fascinating in a world where we are increasingly aware that we all have complex lives.
MB: What makes you turn to portraiture over other genres?
RA: Portraiture requires a space into which I invite the subject as opposed to the reportage or documentary artist who engages and attempts to adapt space and subject perhaps at the same time into work of value. My early experience of photography was of failure and I developed a style that minimized the possibility of lack of success by creating my own landscapes and light formally and controlled and inviting the subject in. This sounds controlling but it is only the space I am controlling in an attempt to minimize the risk of failure in the capture of humanity, so that I can explore the fascinating and beautiful chaos of a subject personality. This need to minimize risk eventually evolved into a form that is defined by others as portraiture and I accept that it is.
The portrait experience gives me an opportunity using art and the camera to explore my relationship to others that I find more difficult in life; the camera offers an opportunity of intimate engagement but through a plane of glass.
I have a complex relationship to documentary work; I feel that it can imply a truth to the presentation images and the formality of the portrait session also declares that the artist is present and that this image is an interpretation. This is an essential part of my practice; very often this awkwardness (both the subjects’ and my own) is the core of my work is the most criticized element. All my works that pass the filter should feel the presence of the artist in the room.
I interviewed Richard as the guest speaker for the Portrait class I teach at OCADU [August 2016] & The University of Guelph-Humber [November 2016]
Be sure to check Richard’s work at www.richardansett.com