In the middle of the 19th century, when photographic images left the metal plates of the daguerreotype process behind and switched to paper, the debate began about works of art in photography. In fact, in the eyes of critics, photographs, taken using a device, a pure result of industry, carry the original sin of not being exclusively executed by the hand of the artist, through his action, spirit or imagination. At that time, when many believed that art could only be an exact reproduction of nature, Charles Baudelaire recognised, in his highly succinct critique at the Salon of 1859, Paris Exhibition, that photography has an essential generic quality, that of the power to faithfully reproduce nature; and therefore to question in this case whether "industry, capable of providing us with an identical result of nature, was the absolute art." He then concluded optimistically that, "What man, worthy of being called an artist, or what true amateur has never confused art with industry?”
Art or Nature, the controversy sparked by Fox Talbot in 1844 in his The Pencil of Nature, which compared artistic creation to that of simple reproduction of what is real, is not over yet... and the difficult journey towards recognising photography as a work of art has only just begun.
This situation is in fact due in part to the first applications of photography. Indeed, its capacity to reproduce what is real, in a firm assumed truth, leads photographs to work in two classic pictorial fields: landscape and portrait. Following on from the use of the camera obscura - so valued by painters due to its ability to capture the features of landscapes - the photographic camera would then render far off lands, support archaeological campaigns, capture majestic monuments or introduce unknown worlds to mankind, while remaining perfectly faithful to reality. The images offered to us as a result are beautiful, in our opinion, because they are true.
The other field of representation which photographers focussed on is that of portraiture which, inspired directly by painting codes, wavers between an exact image and assumed objective of the model, evocation of beauty or originality of the subject and magically immune to the passage of time and especially the occurrence of death. The extraordinary success of the first daguerreotypes lies in this desperate narcissistic quest of the subject or of the loved ones to counter forgetting. Given this context, photographic portraits had to render the image of the model as closely as possible to reality, but closely to which truth?
All of Ricardo Lopez Bueno's art is based around this core issue: who is really my model? How to render not just the features of his face, but also of his internal expression, his profound truth, and all this while the time which elapses during the posing session changes his thoughts, his feelings and his emotions?
One part of the response lies in the artist's intent. In fact, when we speak of "making" - as if we were producing a child or a friend’s portrait - the situation may appear simple to the amateur that we are and so complex to the artist. And in this way, the amateur followed well-known principles: avoid working with back light, avoid positioning the subject facing the sun or setting off the flash in his eyes, and this is enough to fill the subject with emotion. Besides, we endure, without any possibility of intervening, the flash when a passport photograph is taken, a self-portrait in fact, in an automatic photo booth; we can strike a pose, smile, gesticulate, but all that is in vain, we are most often bothered by the result so far removed from what we intended and our disappointment is made greater by the fact that we do not recognise ourselves.
Meanwhile, as an artist, Ricardo implemented an eminently rigorous, highly personal and perfectly thought-through process, which would end up by reconciling the model with himself. In order to do so he began by defining how he wanted to use his portraits; not anthropometric documents, not social reports, not funereal portraits, not amateur souvenirs, his works are entirely and solely for artistic purposes. Within this context he looks for anonymous people whom he researches patiently and carefully, like the director who selects his actors who most closely represent the roles they will play. He chooses models of different ages, who live nearby, from a variety professions, and who are not defined by any social, geographical context or even style of dress: he forces himself to some extent to expose their faces in order to better analyse them, decipher them and to bring out their essence. Over time, following the example of the great classical painters, he set up a large gallery of portraits in a studio the look and format of which are the essence of his project.
In this regard, I would like to mention the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon which I visited recently and where an admirable portrait of Mariana of Austria is on exhibition, painted by Velasquez, and which teaches us so much about the format of artworks. In fact, while this famous painting indeed presents all the qualities of composition, light and formal audacity that we find in the Master's classic court portraits, the surroundings and the décor are indeed identical, its modest dimensions contrast sharply with the official portraits by the same artist, in which Mariana appears. Thus the question arises regarding the destination of the works of art since, in fact, the miniature portrait of Mariana was destined to travel from Vienna to Madrid, so that the Habsbourg family could, at family reunions, acknowledge their Spanish relatives, while the official, life-size portraits, found in palaces, were designed as ostentatious works to underline the grandeur and power of the character.
We can see that, since the very beginning, "business cards", as with amateur photographs nowadays, make it possible to carry images of loved ones on one's person, privately and in an easily portable manner. Nevertheless, the evolution of the photograph, over the last decades which saw the photographic image move from the printed page to the museum wall, led the documentary review imperceptibly to the status of work of art; and this public application, made accessible to all, has caused a substantial change in the format of contemporary works of art; did Ricardo, in so doing, deliberately choose to make his prints in large format for aesthetic reasons, prioritising what is known as "painting format" and ensuring that the dimensions best render his desired composition of the image? And so we see the portrait of Carmen being forcefully depicted while the portrait of the young social worker, fragile, sitting up straight, pierces the dark surface like a faint semi-colon.
These reflections lead us to analyse some fundamental questions inherent in the formal work of Ricardo Lopez Bueno, namely the way in which he deals with the frame, the pose, the composition and the facial expression.
Every artist, as is widely known, expresses himself in his own way thus making him unique; accordingly, it seems that the exclusive use of black, of a noble, deep, dense black fitting tightly around the faces, or even framing them to better draw out the subject, underlines Ricardo's desire to exclude any context, any detail, any historical or social connotation which could distract from the concentration focussed only on the face. Removed from the chaos of the multifaceted and multi-coloured outside world, the anarchy of reality is blown open by the supposed rigour of monochrome. He knows however that this flat, sombre surface which shuts out any visible signs shall on the contrary absorb the visitor's silhouette which is reflected in him like a mirror. From that moment on, as if recoiling and acting aloof, the characters appear to defer to the wishes of the photographer and surrender their image; at that point, Ricardo becomes a sort of confessor, the one who delivers his models.
And then comes the positioning of the protagonists, aligned with the models' personalities. A close-up, we have seen it, on the face of the lawyer and of the nurse, a close-up of the chemist's face while the majority of men and women in his artistic studies are presented seated, with a straight bust and shoulders bearing an attitude not dissimilar to that of the, slightly rigid, official court portraits in the past. The subjects appear in profile or at a three-quarter angle to prevent the well-known asymmetry of features from being highlighted, but above all to ensure that the double light exposure used by the artist avoids the flatness of the full portrait, renders the relief and confirms the contours of the face and its dimensions, such as the perfect design of the nose of the writer or performer, the high cheek bones of the pedagogue or organist, or the ironic chin of the landscape painter.
Through slight successive touches, during the mental construction of the work, Ricardo divulges his intentions, real metaphors of the appearance of the underlying image in photography; in this way, to focus the spectator's attention on the facial expression, Ricardo deliberately chose to cover the arms and often the hands, a subtle skill when we realise to what extent their presence intrude quite violently on the image. Even more paradoxical is the quasi lack of representation of the hands which, as we know are the seat of intelligence and action; they limn delicate curves (the sociologist), highlight the energy of creation (the organist) or the complexity of reflection (the professor) and they provoke the signs of brining to the surface this sensitive world which we caress, which we assess, which we interpret.
Moreover, in order to create homogeneity in his portrait gallery, the artist makes a choice regarding their outfits, ensuring once again that through this no temporal or social traces stigmatise the models whom he makes pose in sombre coloured garments, dark blue, grey or black, in order to subtly separate them from the darkness of the background; he can then highlight the fluidity, unctuousness of the subject and let the shimmer of silk shine through (the organist), emphasise the delicacy of the lace (the sociologist), reveal the voluptuous complexity of the folds (the actress) before punctuating the image with delicate notions of white through the presence of blouses, fine overstitch or accessories such as earrings or zips. The presence of these details is so tenuous that the choice of large format in which the work is printed thus becomes an essential quality to make the delicate, barely perceptible, elements which set the images in rhythm, stand out.
Since the first portrait which can be qualified as photographic -the Holy Shroud- was revealed to the world, many believe that this direct imprint obtained on a sensitive surface - because the cloth acted like a negative - revealed itself to be a perfect portrait, an exact reproduction of the face of Christ. Without going into the doubts that can be raised about the historical truth of this image, it is obvious that it can only be the truth of a single instant, that in which the head of Christ rested against the shroud. In fact, if the photograph is able to capture the resemblance of a face in terms of the forms and dimensions that it consists of, it can only truly be recognised through the multiple passing and fleeting expressions which, accumulated successively, form a mental image whose memory we retain; and the fraction of a second which the glance lasts only allows the surface of the subject's personality to be seen, leading Jean Renoir to say that a portrait can only be unconscious.
In this respect, reading Ricardo Lopez Bueno's contact boards is very instructive in the sense that they perfectly define his project. Imperceptibly, to find its truth, the portrait which he composes must be the result of a dialogue between him and his model in a double play of dependence, discovery, sequestered will converted into trust and final abandon. And the success of the final project lies in the quality of this mutual giving of oneself. By way of example, the four photographs of Carmen's session develop four different points of view of the model's psychology at moment T: amazement, apprehension, surprise and finally complicity...
The portrait remains an exercise which firstly is a meeting with oneself and in which silence is the key word. Dense, deep silence which we find in each of Ricardo's portraits, the silence which creates isolation from the outside world, from one’s occupation, one’s obligations, before the first murmurings of dialogue. Not the silence of emptiness but that which the artist transcended over time, of exchange, of introspection, favouring in this way, during the posing session, the birth of a colour chart of sentiments which he revealed on the great day. The first topics were not determined using words, but rather through the medium of observation, as if the artist planned in this way to delve further, the seat of thought, into the subject's soul, into his most intimate inner self, into his subconscious. And when the observations have been assessed, the model can deliver himself confidently to the eye and to the camera of the artist in whom patience, calm and analytical finesse can be divined; at least this is what is felt as one contemplates the different expressions of these characters. And the little white mark which appears delicately in the pupil of the model, and which reveals itself to be the image of the artist, can only underline for us this very strong link which has been established between the two of them.
Finally, as a wary musician, Ricardo Lopez Bueno knows that the creation of a portrait resembles a waltz in three parts of unequal duration, that of the model, that of the photographer and that of the spectator. From then on in fact, this gallery of portraits was presented in museums and galleries, offering the visitor time to contemplate, furtively for some, endlessly for others, depending on the empathy they feel for the model and the fascination they hold for the artist's work. Because, lest we forget, "neither passive, nor opaque, the surface of a face during the experience of each moment, is like a thought surfacing" in which we try to discover the secret in order to share it better; and the long and deliberated contemplation of each of his works is so personal it leads me to think that, in the discourse initiated by Ricardo Lopez Bueno with his models, he has undoubtedly performed his own self-portrait.