Archive for the Chuck Close Category

The History of the Portrait Part I or The Exquisite Lie

Posted in August Sander, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Mongolian Ping Pong, Photography on April 15, 2012 by smpiv

The movie “Mongolian Ping Pong” begins with a Mongolian couple having their portraits taken with a backdrop of the Forbidden City with Mao’s portrait prominently displayed.  The couple is wearing pseudo-western clothing for their picture.

“1, 2, 3 click.  OK now the whole family,” says the photographer in Mongolian.

The husband quickly shucks his suit coat and dons his traditional garb.  His son joins the group with his goat; the grandmother joins the group and sits stoically center stage with serious coke bottle glasses.  The daughter joins the group with a portrait of their dead grandfather.  Mao remains looking over their shoulders.

“1, 2, 3 click,” says the photographer.

“OK, now me and my wife with the USA background,” intones the father and husband.

This entire sequence transpires in front of the backdrop.  After the family portrait the mother and wife moves beyond the backdrop to reveal the Mongolian steppe and its infinite horizon.

Where am I going with this? 

Well, as I watched this all unfold I thought back to my time as a baby photographer and the back and forth I would have with the customer. 

“Which background would you like?  The beach; the mountains; green, blue, what? Sitting, standing, the poser for the baby?”

That was the beginning of the intricate and complicated lie that surrounds and infuses a portrait.

At their simplest level portraits are records of the sitters’ appearance on a certain day and time.  Anyone who has visited an antique store has seen boxes of pictures taken years before of “instant relatives”.  Very few, if any of these pictures have the names of the sitters on the back.  Those that do are just as mysterious, because name or not we have no idea who they are.

But they took the time on that particular day and time to sit for a portrait that would reveal them to family and friends.  The sitter is then sucked into times undercurrent and anonymity for eternity in their corporeal state, but with the photograph a stare and gaze that looks far forward into the future.

Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin and countless other photographic pundits have written concerning the power of the photograph at the picture plane, beyond the picture plan, and behind the picture plane.  And they would further postulate on the ability of an image to tell an exquisite lie.

Where am I going with this?

At our basest level we are all social liars.

We dress a certain way; we live in certain places; we do certain things all to project a certain image of who we think we are.  When we freeze this lie in a portrait we hope and fear that all our certainties are there in that two dimensional image.

August Sander photographed his fellow Germans before WWI and through WWII in an effort to capture all the types he felt made up German society.  The results of this effort are some truly beautiful portraits of people in any number of professions and walks of life.  Besides some portraits of well known artists, political figures and actors his sitters are anonymous.  Histories cleansing brush has removed their identities and painted them with a beauty that was never intended.


“Junger Soldat” (Young Soldier) is a perfect example of the exquisite lie.

This portrait, taken sometime in 1945, shows a fresh faced, well fed young man in a uniform that doesn’t look to far removed from the box.  Behind him is a bucolic farm scene.  His expression shows no fear of the possibilities his uniform offers him.  His placid expression shows no realization of the hell Germany was spiraling into as the German army collapsed into disarray before their final surrender on May 7th.

Did he survive?  Did he find himself behind Soviet lines or did he have the good fortune to surrender to an American or British unit?  We don’t know and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter for he chose to portray himself at this moment with an exquisite lie, leaving us to dig for the exquisite truth.  Or is it the other way around?

It is interesting to note that August Sander had a profound influence on Diane Arbus, who is sometimes more celebrated for committing suicide than for her work.  Her portrait work, like Sander, is a wonderful collection of the human condition.  Whereas Sander is relatively invisible in his imagery, Arbus, through several well studied biographies, is so infused into her work that it makes every move she made suspect.










The fine line between the subject and interpreter was beginning to blur.  Above is a self-portrait of Diane Arbus taken in 1945.  The same year as our well fed German soldier.

This blurring would be further realized by Cindy Sherman, Larry Clark, Chuck Close and others who would manipulate, not from the front of the picture plane but from behind.  It would be more of an Oz-like approach.

Does this make the images any less successful?  Not at all, just a different way to approach a subject and not letting the camera do all the work.

Where am I going with this?  Well at this point, I’m tired and I’m not sure, so I will wrap it up with my own exquisite lie.

This is my favorite portrait of my son and an exquisite lie.

So what is the exquisite truth?

It’s as formal as our fresh faced German soldier.  He appears to be in a uniform of sorts.  His gaze is firm and smile comfortable.  He projects a confidence that defies his nine years.

What it doesn’t say—without my input— was that he was dressed as closely to an eighteenth century youth as we could get him, in his mother’s blouse, a Wal-mart hat, and suspenders that will never be worn again.  He begrudgingly allowed me to photograph him in our backyard to commemorate the moment as only a parent would. 

But, for some reason, despite all the other issues that surrounded the moment, this portrait transcends the sitter, the photographer and the moment as most successful portraits do.

And that’s the truth.