As my house slowly fills with metal tintype photographic plates leant against any surface available, the time had come to start to store them properly. Rather than make little storage boxes I decided to produce an album. Collating all my photographs into one place has given the chance to spend some time with the images, assessing where I’m going, conventions I have adopted that help or restrict.
I can see my work is getting closer to straight portraiture, that is closer to the character of the sitter. I can also see a struggle to incorporate creativity into my work without breaking that feeling of honesty. I feel with creative portraiture the more extreme the creativity the less of a portrait and the more of a portrait, the less creativity. Perhaps its a mindset, maybe they are opposite ends of a spectrum or perhaps its more to do with a careful execution of the two elements.
For my own tastes there is no escaping the resonating force of Julia Margret Cameron. Her work fascinates me although at times it also feels too melancholy. The more I’ve observed her work I feel you have to be in the right frame of mind, the third element of any portrait after the photographer and sitter is the viewer. When I’m responsive to her work nothing really compares to it. The sleepy looks of her subjects suddenly take on a spiritual appearance.
Many of her images are of religious themes, spiritual and slightly erring on the side of fantasy. She created many images based on Lord Tennyson’s stories of Knights and fair maidens. Many of her child photographs have angel wings and adorned with flowers. This spiritual quality is no romanticising appreciation of her work but clearly evident in her intentions. What I cannot explain is that when you take away her images that are clearly intended to be religious or fantasy themed and are left with images that are straight portraits, that feeling of the mystical remains.
There is always melancholy, a stillness and an honesty in how the sitter faces the camera, but then somehow through the lightest of touches a feeling of the mystical emerges. Ive often wondered if Cameron encouraged her subjects into a kind of trance. Through researching an eclectic photographer ‘Minor White’ one of his influences was Evelyn Underhill. Evelyn was a little too late to inspire Cameron but she wrote about the practice of Mysticism. The loosing yourself into the great nothingness, a meditation so deep that it detaches your soul from the body. I do not know if the practice of mysticism would of influenced Cameron and Victorian culture. The moods of the individuals depicted seem similar always with a sleepy, distant look even when engaging the viewer. Whatever Camerons secrets are, she is showing them to me clearly yet I cannot see.
Ive been working a lot with Holly recently and whilst you could do endless straight portraits and keep creating something different, we felt the time had come to try and tip toe through this creative vs straight portraiture divide. There was a simplicity to the shoot, facing the camera in the most natural and stable way but then we worked on subtle gestures or focussing in on the elements that seemed to speak about being alive. The touching of the throat, the moving of an eye, the fleshiness of skin. Through the simplest of means I wanted to try and incorporate this creativity that elevated straight portraiture into something other, a little more of the universal.
Im very happy with the results. There is this piercing stillness and quietness to the plates we made. They don’t feel solely portraits of Holly, they seem have a something ‘other’ as well. I feel it has taken a good year to start to discover where I fall with my work but finally I see a direction forming. In the past when I have tried to push my creativity it becomes quite tempting to try and turn the creativity up to eleven. To become overly clever in its application and scope, what seems harder is trying to incorporate individual creativity by the most subtle means. What I’ve done seems simple and straightforward but the shifting of mindset to get to this point has taken a lot of effort and time.
As is always the case with my photography, as the years end draws near I start to rapidly burn out. Soon it will be the start of a new year when my creativity is recharged and reinvigorated. Sitting down and looking at my images and writing this post has helped me distill my thoughts and where I’m going with photography. I hope I can carry on in this direction and finally start to conquer the Portrait vs Conceptual Art debate that continually rattles on in my head.