When I was a kid, my granddad regularly took me to museums all over Europe, and introduced the history of art to me. Although I’m very grateful to him for this generosity, I explain to myself my lack of interest in the photographic portrait in the following way: standing in front of the impressive portraits of Dürer or Rembrandt or whichever incomparable historical painter, one is easily reduced to a certain awe. But one also learns to read the complex relationship between sitter and portraitist, to read the “personalization” of the sitter and thereby understand the objectification strategies undergone by the artist. In short, to appreciate the complexity of the construction of paintings.
And thus, in portrait photography, it’s as if my eye and my mind could find nothing to hold on to.
But finally, a surprising sentence by August Sander showed the door: he said that photography was made to be “turned over,” as in a magazine. This odd little phrase greatly helped me appreciate his work, first of all. And by going through his work, page by page, my eye was suddenly able to rest on an individual portrait of his. I was stopped in wonder at his compositions, the expressions he captured, the exquisite balance between distance and closeness.
In the same way, I have been looking at Oliver Sieber’s work for a long time now and through it, learning about his long-term research and deep involvement. His methods feed into the quiet yet expressive work he has been publishing.
More recently, a completely different style in portraiture has disclosed itself to me: the wonderful work of Craigie Horsfield. Equally based on research into society, history and indeed historicity, but executed with a more distinct affection for poetry than anything else.
From this, the work of Suzanne Lafont and the young Yves Drillet have been touching me in surprising spots as well. Portrait photography, with its beautiful apprehension of the sitter and yet a complex theory feeding into its practice, can also be found in Stephanie Solinas’ work, where the mind wanders back and forth between the procedure and the portrait.
As an endnote, before finishing this long little text, I want to mention William Eggleston, whom I’ve always considered to be a surprising portrait photographer, especially of children (whether his own or those who he meets in passing).
Maybe it’s because of his complete lack of empathy—which his son describes in an interview, and which can certainly be felt in his work—but whatever it is, it enables him to create transcendent work whenever he meets and photographs children. These are images in which you could feel he is frightened and yet highly appreciative of the autonomy of the child.