Phillip Prodger is one of the leading curators of portrait photography in the world. Since 2014, he has been Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2016, he put on the blockbuster show ”William Eggleston Portraits.”
We reached out to Prodger via email to discuss his thoughts on portraiture. He offered a wide-ranging spectrum of responses on the topic. Read on for more—
LC: In your lovely introductory essay to the William Eggleston Portraits catalogue, you write that portraiture “cannot reveal identity.” So often, we talk about the revealing power of a photograph, especially in a portrait of a famous person (a person we feel we know well). Can you say more about what you think a portrait can achieve, if not our “romantic” idea that it can evoke the soul of the sitter before our eyes?
PP: Identity is not a fixed thing, and no person is one-dimensional, so the idea that a single photograph can stand in for the totality of a person is a polite fiction at best. We would all like to think that there are aspects of our personalities which remain core to our being throughout our lives. Whether or not that’s true, people do undoubtedly fall into patterns of behavior and cultivate ways they want to be seen. Many photographers are good at zeroing in on a person’s distinctive characteristics, revealing traits that seem “true” to the subject. But this is not “identity” so much as it is “image.” It is the same formula whereby the tortured writer becomes heroic, the tireless nurse compassionate, or the evil villain dastardly. In the wrong hands, this kind of portraiture can feel empty and superficial.
Identity is constantly in flux. I was another person at university, as a baby, when I got married, and (God willing) I’ll be someone else as I grow older. You can think of this as the inevitable march of time—that we gather life’s baggage around us, just as decorator crabs stick things to their shells. But we’re also just messy, organic beings, full of contradictions, uncertainties, inner thoughts and outer projections. Who we are is indefinable and unmeasurable.
In this sense, taking a photograph of a person is like holding jelly in your hands. You can feel its weight, but where is its center?
It is widely accepted that a great photographer can push beyond all this to reveal something of a sitter’s inner self, as complex, evanescent and contorted as that may be. But there are reasons to be skeptical of this. Photography excels at splitting seconds, not surveying lifetimes. It is by nature mechanical and distant, not warm and knowing. On paper, it is the worst possible tool for portraiture. Yet there is something undeniably magnetic about photo portraiture that defies easy explanation. I often wonder whose identity is revealed to me in a portrait that speaks to me. Is it really the sitter, or is it something internal to me, that maps onto my memory in a powerful way? Maybe a fragment—a mere moment in time—is, after all, the best way to find connection with another person.
Eggleston, for one, rejects the idea that you can get to know his subjects by just looking at his pictures. And he’s absolutely right about that. But that’s not the same as saying they don’t have meaning.
LC: In the same essay, you discuss the importance of “pictus interruptus” in Eggleston’s work—the way his sequences build up rich, non-linear possibilities over a series of images. Because portraiture is so intimately tied to single images (going back to its roots in painting), the idea of a portrait “series” can be a bit intimidating. Any thoughts or advice on this matter for portrait-inclined photographers?
PP: For much of its history, photography has labored under preconceptions inherited from painting and other traditional media. One of the most ingrained of these is the belief that pictures should be self-contained: in other words, that they should tell a story. The story can be abstract or open-ended—it can even have a powerful relationship to other pictures—but on a conceptual level it is still a discrete packet of information conceived by the artist that can be “read.”
Even the most radical painters of the twentieth century could never quite shake this idea, and most photographers embraced it too. I don’t want to pick on Ansel Adams (whom I admire), but for me the perfect example of this is his famous Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite. You don’t need anything else to enjoy the picture. It is all there, like a beautiful piece of music. You can hang it in your office, or your home, without any other Ansel Adams pictures around, and be thrilled to have it. No one has to explain it. It succeeds on its own terms.
Increasingly, the language of photography has been changing, and artists have been exploring a whole other set of possibilities. Our culture swims in a soup of imagery, where photographs often just graze our consciousness, and pictures are detached from their original meaning, if they ever had one. The idea of a photograph as a self-contained system no longer makes a lot of sense. At the same time, the line between film, video and still photography is blurrier than ever, and motion capture is becoming increasingly routine. As a result, conventions that have been associated with cinema for the last 80+ years are becoming part of the vocabulary of still photographers.
Narratives no longer have to be complete to be meaningful. Photographic storytelling is more about networks, nodes, and webs than it is about concise statements. In this world, relationships between images become central. Viewers and artists alike are constantly constructing realities from images, wiring and rewiring like neural networks.
This is one reason that the photo book has made such a strong comeback in the 21st century. The book form gives photographers the opportunity to develop structure and impart meaning to seemingly disparate imagery, to create context where it has otherwise been stripped away. This, in turn, gives photographers license to explore whole new approaches to photography—where content isn’t obvious, and narrative is uncertain. Iconic photographs still get made, but most pictures no longer follow the old rules. Instead they are touchstones, provocations, gestures…their meaning, fluid.
LC: You work at the National Portrait Gallery in London, an institution with an extensive photography collection as well as portraits in the form of paintings, drawings, miniatures, prints, sculptures and more. Working alongside so many other media, what do you think is distinctive about photographic portraits amidst this wide array?
PP: On one level there is no difference; all the curators at the NPG deal with the same questions of representation and identity. Although the circumstances have changed over the centuries, the challenge of how (and why) to represent another human meaningfully is essentially constant.
There are two areas in which photography distinguishes itself from other media: verisimilitude (that is, the life-like representation of something), and the capacity to capture discrete slices of time. Verisimilitude is an important question unto itself, but perhaps not the biggest in portrait photography, since a meticulous painter or draftsperson can achieve something like photorealism given enough effort and skill. For me, the bigger question is the relationship to time.
In no other media are representations so fleeting and ephemeral by nature.
Combine verisimilitude and time, and you get something really interesting. If painting is an act of synthesis, then photography is an act of dissection. How amazing that we can by moved by things that are so transitory—and also so particular.
LC: You’ve worked on exhibitions that cover historical photographers (Charles Darwin; Man Ray) and living, contemporary photographers (William Eggleston). Can you talk about the pleasures and challenges of each?
PP: It is one of the privileges of my position to be able to work with some of the great artists of my time. Getting to know someone like William Eggleston changes you. He is a great intellect, his work is inspiring, and he has a unique way of moving through the world. But I don’t distinguish between famous and lesser-known artists. Young artists can be just as impressive as established artists, often more so. I try to learn from everyone.
I am equally passionate about historical research. History is full of puzzles, and I love trying to decode the thoughts of people I never met. Discovering what Darwin was thinking even when he never explained, piecing together the process that led Eadweard Muybridge to design his shutters a certain way—it brings those histories alive for me. The biggest challenge is to avoid personalizing things too much, to maintain critical distance, and it’s not always easy. When I found the letters Man Ray wrote to Lee Miller, for example, I cried. He loved her deeply, but she left him. The letters he wrote right afterwards sizzle with emotion. There is so much raw life in them, so much pain, anguish, desperation. I never met him, but reading those letters, it didn’t really matter.
LC: In the latter case, how does your interaction with an artist evolve from your initial encounter with their work, to a personal meeting, and then to the realization of an exhibition? How much is the artist involved in the creation and execution of the exhibition’s vision? For example, with Eggleston, I know you traveled to his home in Memphis and spoke with him at length. Can you describe his role in the exhibition’s final shape?
PP: This varies completely by artist. Some artists like to be involved in every aspect of an exhibition, controlling everything, including the width of their frames down to the millimeter. Others are happy to delegate a lot of the decisions about exhibition and display to the curator.
In the case of Bill [Eggleston], it was something else again. There came a point when I went to Memphis and explained what I wanted to do and why. He told me that my ideas made sense to him, and that was it. From that point forward, I had unfettered access to his archive, and he largely left selections and sequencing to me. He was always involved, and he always had useful information to share, but that element of trust never left. To be honest, it kept me awake at night. I didn’t want to let him down, and I was well aware of all the great curators who’ve worked with him over the years. People like John Szarkowski and Walter Hopps, or more recently, Elisabeth Sussman and Thomas Weski. They are hard acts to follow.
LC: Besides major monographic exhibitions, the NPG also hosts the Taylor Wessing Prize each year. As discussed, portraiture can work in both series and as single images. While you delved into the power and challenges of series above, can you talk about the power of single images as captured in the Taylor Wessing exhibition—the pleasures of seeing 50+ works that cover different topics from around the world?
PP: It’s funny you should ask that, because two years ago we did make the decision to change the rules to admit sequences of photographs in addition to individual pictures. So now visitors to the exhibition see a mix of approaches, including stills and series.
But I take your point. Not just in the exhibition, but in judging, you confront pretty much every human feeling, and every dimension of experience. Birth, death, disease, love, joy, sadness, loss, violence…if it’s human, it’s there. And of course, it is an international prize, so we see what is happening around the world. It can be gut-wrenching, exhausting, and it’s not always pretty, nor should it be—that’s not what being human is all about.
And yet there is something incredibly uplifting about all that creative energy gathered from every corner of the world. It reminds me that the photography world is, in a very real sense, a community. And of course, along the way, we see some great pictures. I’ve seen a lot of photographs at this point in my career. But there is nothing like that chill down the back of your neck when you see something special.
LC: Finally, between Taylor Wessing and exhibitions like Eggleston’s, you’ve had the chance to meet and work with emerging, lesser-known artists alongside some of the biggest names in the field. Are there some common threads you have found when speaking with these especially talented portrait-makers? Any shared traits or passions that you think could be applicable for aspiring photographers?
PP: I had a professor at university who told me that everything a person can possibly photograph has been photographed before. As a student I was taken aback by her pessimism, and I’ve thought a lot about her words since. It seems to me now that actually the opposite is true—that nothing you photograph has ever been photographed before. Not all pictures are great, and certain compositions repeat, but they’re still unique, an extension of the distinct circumstances of the person who makes them.
It can be daunting to think about all the great photographers who have come before. But no one has cornered the market on understanding, and you couldn’t repeat the work of the past now if you wanted to. New times demand new perceptions and approaches.
If there’s one thread that binds all successful photographers, it is the drive to make meaning out of the things that move them. The next generation of great photographers is being born now, and I can’t wait to see what they do. Visually, and perhaps even conceptually, it won’t be the same as what came before. But their instincts, insight, and passion will be familiar.
—Phillip Prodger, interviewed by Alexander Strecker