Portraiture and Projection by Céline Bodin

Appearances are bearers of meaning. Our first impressions of a person are concealed within our own imaging process. The tendency to classify into types is almost instinctive; it is a common path towards identification. Portrait photography is its ambiguous medium. Scraping the surface, it destabilises our sense of reality. Because of its supposed guaranty of exact replication of the living reality, it has been established to ‘re-present’ and reveal.

In the 19th century it was considered the best means to classify and identify into types with the use of phrenology and physiognomy, as can be seen in Francis Galton’s composites which merged multiple individuals into one generic image. Photography offers time for the contemplation of subtle details; unlike painting, it isn’t the summary of its subject.

However, along its journey towards contemporary portraiture the notion of representation has become problematic: what is readable only on the surface? To what extent are we learning about the individual portrayed in the instant of an image? Does a portrait truly allow space for genuine presence?

Photography is objective only in its functional aspect but it is somehow weakened in its ability to unite self and subject. Imagery offers fantasy, it can comfort and reassure. Susan Sontag, in her study On Photography (1973), insists on a photograph to be only a ‘narrowly selective transparency’. It is only a part of reality.

The question of projection is key. Posing is an obstacle to the ‘air’ that allows us to recognise the person, as Roland Barthes stated in Camera Lucida (1980). In Portraiture: Facing the Subject, (1997), Joanna Woodall introduces the notion of ‘portraiture’s mimetic mask’, as we are bound to look for the flaw in the surface which will guide us to the true presence. Therefore, the portrait opens itself to interrogation and suggestion more than it delivers a sense of truth or character.

The works of contemporary photographers Rineke Dijkstra, Bettina Von Zwehl, or Marjaana Kella revisit the conventions of portraiture as a genre. Dijkstra’s work is strong in narrative, her subjects enter the camera’s frame to tell a story subtly shaped by the specificity of a moment or action. In the case of Von Zwehl portraiture is treated as a laboratory, as she carries out experiments on her subjects, confronting them with their own vulnerability while the camera witnesses their reaction.

When 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot documented hysteria, he proved that the likelihood of the patient performing was increased by the presence of the medical staff. The notion of performance, as an observed state, raises the question of authenticity in the self as it engages with attitude. To disrupt their subjects’ effort at self-representation Von Zwehl, and Dijkstra consider the residual traces of extreme forms of exertion or specific contextual affect, as a bullfighter leaves the arena (Villa Franca di Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994), a woman just gave birth, or vulnerable subjects lie on the floor holding their breath (Untitled III, No 2, 1999). In Hypnosis (1997-2001), Marjaana Kella scrutinises the suspended moment of her hypnotised subjects (Niclas, Hypnosis, 2001).

Such works invite the viewer to investigate the layers of visibility a subject offers, as the ones represented here face the challenged projection of themselves, necessarily defying the notion of self-consciousness in the moment of being photographed.

The viewer’s examination should therefore remain aware of the body’s performative quality.

Images mediate a cultural coding. Acknowledging this dimension, Cindy Sherman’s work reveals how conventionalised appearances are acted out. (Untitled Film Stills, #12, 1978). Through genre performance she portrays gender as the ‘regulatory model’ Judith Butler defines in Gender Trouble (1990). In Sherman’s self-portraits, gender follows an imitative structure influenced by customs and ideals constantly revaluating the ‘corporealisation’ that imaging should set apart from identification.

Portrait photography can be considered the space for interpretation, its definition relying both on the artist’s intention and its relationship to the viewer’s judgment.

Looking at Thomas Ruff series of passport-like photos our longing to identify is frustrated. The person’s character remains a mystery. The quality of those deadpan portraits remains in the subtle signs of interaction, the way the subjects address the camera.

We can therefore witness multiple layers of projection within a portrait: The photographer interprets the sitter’s self-interpretation, and the sitter in return interprets the photographer and viewer’s expectation. Finally, the viewer interprets the overall impersonation.

In the end, the camera doesn’t classify, we do. As spectators we long to read through the subtlety of a face, the grace of gesture, the drama of expression. Portraits fascinate us because of what they could say. Our relationship with portraiture is therefore a subjective and sentimental one. It is easy to understand that more than it renders personality, photography reveals our intimate projections on the surface. We conjure a dialogue, and the desire to relate might in itself be the only possible truth portraiture could deliver.


Céline Bodin is a French photographer. After studying literature and architecture, she graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris. In 2013 she completed a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, her personal practice explores themes of identity, gender, and the metaphysical frustration of the medium in representation.

ESSAY: Man Ray: Surrealism and Photography

While working as a doctor in a military psychiatric hospital during World War I, Frenchman André Breton experienced disturbed soldiers discussing “bizarre images as if they had taken dictation from a genius who had possessed them while reason slept.” In a seemingly parallel universe, one far from the destruction of the war, the art world was turning its back on Dadaism. It had become too academic, too much a part of the bourgeois mainstream it had by definition rebelled against. Dadaism soon morphed into surrealism, spearheaded by Breton and influenced by what he – and the world – had seen during a war that killed sixteen million people. Breton became obsessed with the idea of unconscious autonomy, free association, and the “irrational as the source of creativity and of freedom from any kind of restraint.” In 1924, he wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto. “Completely against the tide… in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally,” he declared, birthing a movement.

Just as the movement’s literature ignored traditional techniques and opted for unstructured, “automatic” writing, as surrealist painters explored illusions and dreams and twisted the idea of everyday normality, photographers scorned the idea that the camera created the final word. They incorporated the primary topics of surrealist focus – dreams, illusions, mystery, eroticism – into photography. By using unconventional techniques, like multiple exposures, solarization, distortion, and montage, these surrealist photographers turned a previously mechanical tool into a medium via which they could express the avant-garde framework of the surrealist movement. The visual language of the camera had been transformed from an instrument of representation to a medium of artistic creation not unlike its supposed “higher-up,” painting.

Few artists exemplified this new photographic structure better than Man Ray. Born in Pennsylvania and raised just outside New York City, he began using the camera as, ironically, a mechanical tool to photograph his paintings and mixed media artworks. In 1921, he moved to Paris and set up a photography studio. There, he met Pablo Picasso and was introduced to Dadaism through another close friend, Tristan Tzara. Man Ray’s process, which he named after himself (Rayographs), involved an already progressive method utilizing objects placed directly on gelatin silver paper to produce an abstracted representation of everyday items. It was only fitting, then, that he’d be swept away by the surrealist movement just a few years later. He had already challenged the notion of photography and the creative, mechanical possibilities of the camera. This would be pushed even further after 1924’s Surrealist Manifesto and the official establishment of such an innovative movement.

Man Ray’s most famous photographs combined non-traditional photographic techniques with surrealist principles. As a result, he created images that bridge the line between photographs, which were seen as inherently truthful, and otherworldly dreams. For example, in “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” he utilizes a montage technique that combines his own painting with a photograph of his lover, Lee Miller. There is seemingly no context or logic to the image – the female subject is naked and faceless, next to a chessboard; in the sky over a body of water, floats a giant pair of lips. Here, Man Ray truly creates an imaginative, dreamlike world using unconventional photographic processes, combining his own colorless painting with multiple other photos. The resulting work is almost nightmarish and confusing, the woman in a mysterious world entirely unlike our own.

Man Ray confronts the surrealist focus on eroticism more directly with works like “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Utilizing another non-traditional technique, the image is made up of multiple exposures depicting a nude female with her arms raised over her head. Again, there is an otherworldly element to this image. The face is partly obscured, proportions are distorted, and the solid black background forces the viewer to directly experience the overlapping line and shape of the body; special attention is drawn to the exaggerated breasts and contrasted genitals. The nude form, nearly always female, appears regularly through Man Ray’s and other surrealist works. In his image “The Violin of Ingres,” a nude woman is painted to resemble a violin. Her body, quite plainly, becomes an instrument to be used and played like an object.

Solarization was another experimental technique that frequently appears in Man Ray’s photographs; the photographer would intentionally reverse the light and dark tones on his negatives. In his portraits of, Gertrude Stein, Lee Miller, and Jacqueline Goddard, Man Ray photographs in a very traditional and straightforward style and only later adds a distorting twist to the image through the process of solarization. The surrealist obsession with visions and reveries is also very much a part of these images. The viewer is left entirely alone to determine the circumstance of the photograph. Attempts to unravel details in order to decipher a narrative – the identity of the woman, her thoughts, her mental state – are entirely useless. Man Ray, in line with the other surrealists of his time, had no qualms about potential confusion in the viewer. Surrealism rejected any traditional notion of right or wrong, normality, reality, in use of the camera itself as well as in the images created through it. This was all ignored in favor of alternative photographic methods that assisted Man Ray’s creation of illusions and hallucinations. These, in turn, reflected the movement’s obsession with the subconscious, Freud, and imagination.

The Surrealist community was slowed in the wake of the political turmoil following the Second World War, however, the surrealist movement fully unraveled in 1966 when Breton died. The photography world had all but exploded when surrealism was fading, with the rise of commercial and fashion markets and an increased respect for fine art photography. Yet the avant-garde nature of surrealist photography remained timeless, allowing photographers like Man Ray to publish books, work as a fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue, and be continually exhibited beyond his death in 1976. His lifetime body of work displays a combination of experimental techniques and overarching surrealist principles, making him a chief contributor to both photography as an artistic medium and the surrealist movement. Breton had said surrealism was complete nonconformity. “The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” he wrote in 1924. It was a fitting statement for a movement that utilized photography as an art form in a way that had never been done before, creating nonrepresentational images of dreams and nightmares.


Meghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.

ESSAY: Alexey Titarenko, St Petersburg

In 1991, when the Soviet Union was coming apart, Alexey Titarenko was out in his native Saint Petersburg, trying to make sense of what he saw—a surge of people outside a steep entrance to the subway. “I was walking on the street, absorbing what’s happening. And passing by a subway station I see this sea—this ocean of desperate people trying to get inside,” he recalls in his strong accent, carefully enunciating his words. Although street photography was not his usual approach, Titarenko had had a long-standing interest in making art with his camera. In his head, he heard the somber music of Dmitri Shostakovich, a favorite composer. “The beginning of the Second Cello Concerto is like a long-exposure image by itself,” he says, “and the melody of the cello is so long and so tired.” Together the sight and sound suggested a way to make a photograph that reflected the slow-moving gravitas of the scene. He decided to take photos of it using a shutter speed several minutes long.

In the resulting images, the crowd blurs into a ghostly mass, but certain forms remain visible. A sense of weight and darkness emerges, and the world is transformed into something metaphoric. A hand appears at intervals along the metal subway railing, hinting at the plodding rhythm of the crowd, while behind it, the city is gray and leafless. A pair of shoes sits forlornly at the bottom of the frame, as if their owner had dematerialized.

Those photographs, which initiated Titarenko’s “St. Petersburg” series in 1991, marked the beginning of his interest in the expressive potential of photography and grew into “City of Shadows,” a suite of haunting images of Saint Petersburg crowds that occupied him until 1994. The series won him acclaim in his hometown and convinced him that this kind of photography was worth exploring. “I began to take images because I felt that it was my mission,” he remembers. As the economy collapsed, “the changes happened so quickly and so dramatically, and it was so huge a shock, that it changed me internally. It made me a different person. I said to myself, I can’t stay inside of my room when disaster is happening. I have a good camera, a lot of film.”

But Titarenko was not interested in making images that recorded only the surface of what he saw. “What is important is how we feel,” he says. Since “City of Shadows,” he has produced a series of emotionally intense, painstakingly printed black-and-white photographs of several cities. His work has been shown in festivals and museums around the world, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. Recently he had a solo exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. In New York he is represented by Nailya Alexander Gallery (run by his wife), where his work sells for between $2,500 and $6,000.

Above the sound of water running in washing trays in his Harlem basement darkroom, Titarenko, 51 [update] years old but boyish, with a shaggy, gray-tinged bowl cut, explains that city photography did not always appeal to him. Growing up in the Soviet Union, he says, “I hated street photography because for me it was always a tool of propaganda,” which depicted only sanitized, government-approved scenes. But an interest in photomontage, Dadaism, and Constructivism drew him as a teenager to the underground photo clubs of the 1970s. There he began to see that this method could have an honest critical voice. “People in these clubs were taking pictures that were not allowed to be published,” he recalls.

Collage offered Titarenko a way to make art that might be obliquely critical but still approved by censors. He began incorporating tissue paper and images torn from magazines and newspapers into his photographs, and photographing the results. In the mid-’80s, after studying photography in school and fulfilling his military service, he was still interested in the idea of collage, and he began sandwiching together his negatives so that photographs of public statues often ended up superimposed onto the text printed on street signs. “I loved this project. But at my happiest time at work on the series, the Soviet Union collapsed,” he says ruefully. “It’s like for people who worked all their life to fight the Franco regime in Spain, and then Franco just died. All these artists became obsolete. Nothing to fight.”

Not all of Titarenko’s images are as bleak as his earliest. In the series that followed “City of Shadows,” the artist explored a more light-filled cosmopolitan vision titled “Black and White Magic of St. Petersburg,” inspired by a short story by Dostoyevsky. He has also photographed the intensely romantic cities of Venice and Havana, both of which relate to Saint Petersburg, in his view, since the former was an architectural model for the Russian city and the latter was frozen in the 1950s by economic sanctions, like the Soviet Union. In 2007 Titarenko moved to New York, and he has spent the years since coming to terms with the logistics of making photographs here. “The difference is that there is more density in New York, so I try to create different colors,” he says. Using multiple chemical processes that add warm and cool tones to his gelatin silver prints, he creates an illusion of color. In a shot of Fifth Avenue, American flags stand out at every corner, whispering red, white, and blue. A show of images from his new hometown, “Alexey Titarenko: New York,” is on view at Nailya Alexander gallery until May 16,

Whatever his subject, Titarenko seems to deeply enjoy printing his work, spending hours in his red-lit darkroom listening to classical music. By burning, dodging, solarizing, bleaching, and toning sections of each print, he highlights different details and produces versions of the same negative with slightly varying resonances. Reprinting older negatives, he says, “I’m actually apprehending the image more and more. I see more there, because the negative has thousands of details. It pushes me to emphasize something I just didn’t see in the first place”.


Portrait-150x150Rebecca Robertson is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is a freelance writer, curator and photo editor in Queens. She studied photography and art history at Bryn Mawr College and received her MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts. She has worked in the New York art world for more than 10 years. She has written about photography for ARTnews magazine and curated shows, most recently a series of benefit exhibitions for UNICEF.


A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews.
Images ©Alexey Titarenko/Nailya Alexander Gallery

ESSAY: Anne Collier’s “Woman with a Camera”

Here is Faye Dunaway shot in black and white, holding a weighty Nikon to her eye, and adjusting the focus ring; here she is again, this time in color, the camera pulled back and uncertainty clouding her stare. The pair of prints—which show publicity photos from the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars—are from Anne Collier’s ongoing series “Woman with a Camera,” which explores the power dynamics of taking pictures. Photographed on a plain white background, the text accompanying one press photo reports that the movie is about the vision of a woman who foresees murders and that it was produced, directed, and written by men. In Collier’s coolly expressive work, on view in her first career retrospective that opened last fall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and travels next to the Aspen Art Museum, she exposes the sometimes sexist or sublime patterns lurking in popular culture.

Using the slick mechanisms of advertising, she isolates old forms of media—photos, pages from books, cassette tapes, and record albums—and reshoots them. Her own photographs draw attention to the assumptions embedded in these artifacts, often about what it means for women to look and be looked at.

“Her work feels timely and relevant because we’re so photo-obsessed right now,” says Michael Darling, chief curator at MCA Chicago, who organized the recently closed show. “Taking a retrospective look at these technologies and how women have been portrayed in them prepares you to think about how photos are being used today,” says Darling. While Collier digs through older analog media, her work is useful for thinking about contemporary depictions of women, such as iPhone selfies of Kim Kardashian. “It’s the same kind of woman with a camera,” says Darling. “In many ways we haven’t come that far from these seemingly super-sexist pictures that Anne has uncovered in her photo archeology. I’m excited about how her work can create visual literacy and inspire critical thinking in our audiences.”


Portrait-150x150Rebecca Robertson is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is a freelance writer, curator and photo editor in Queens. She studied photography and art history at Bryn Mawr College and received her MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts. She has worked in the New York art world for more than 10 years. She has written about photography for ARTnews magazine and curated shows, most recently a series of benefit exhibitions for UNICEF.


A version of this article appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews. “Anne Collier” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum from April 10 to June 28, 2015.

Images ©Anne Collier/Anton Kern Gallery/MCA Chicago

ESSAY: Are We a Culture That Produces Artworks or Things?

The influence of capitalism on the art market seems to be stronger than ever. Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece on the current state of the art industry repeated this statement time and time again. The pressure of the art market – who’s buying, what’s selling – is influencing many artists, especially those just beginning a long career, to the point of adapting an almost universal aesthetic that’s easy to market and sell. His view, though reasonably negative, is realistic in arguing that most artwork is now made in order to be sold. Yet, not every artist creates pieces that are things before they are works. The idea of an art object as a work of art versus a thing to be bought and sold is somewhat dependent on factors like location and age, but most of all on the thing that most drives the art market today anyway: money.

It is arguable that many works of art not produced with this ‘commercial intention’ but rather for the sake of creating are done by a younger set of artists, due to their possession of the freedom to experiment and create that is so elusive for older artists concerned with the industry and a career. Pre-art school and before a career-oriented, professional standard of creating, teenagers have the luxury of creating for creation’s sake. Teenage photographers and other artists still living with their parents, financially supported and often living removed from a major art market, are left with a non-commercial method of production far removed from the overhang influence of the art industry. There is no need to earn money from their art, and so work is created almost entirely separately from the financial pressures of an art market. In spite of the mostly-amateur nature of the work being created, this time period may in fact be the only time when artists are free to create almost entirely detached from the influence of a career; there is no need to create commodities or to work within a marketable aesthetic.

Once the young artist grows, perhaps attends art school and enters the professional art market, the line between works and things blurs significantly. (Art school, regardless, is mostly a privilege afforded to those with at least some semblance of financial stability and a support system. In this sense, art schools are already churning out somewhat privileged and industry-ready workers to then be picked apart and narrowed down by a more powerful elite group.) Unless the artist is financially stable and relatively unconcerned with achieving professional success, it is nearly impossible to create without at least considering the sway of the art industry (‘Is this marketable?’). For the rookie working artist or even the experienced careerist, nothing happens in a vacuum. Art is an industry, for better or worse, and is therefore inextricably tied to capitalism – which then determines nearly all other practical factors for living and working in this postmodern economy. Outside of the hobbyist and the youngest group of artists involved in work production, nearly all working professional artists are somewhat tied to creating things that will fit within the art industry’s marketable, capitalist standard. Money creates artists that create more money for a group that already controls a mass amount of finances in the art world.

Most professional artists do not enter the process of art creation with the intention of creating a product: something that is reduced, at face value, to a price tag. However, as previously stated, capitalism is constant background noise. Do artists want to reject the traditional artwork to create things? No, and most of the time their intentions stray far from that objective. However, the capitalist market, a pressure for financial stability, and the current state of the art industry render many, if not most, complicit anyway.


MMeghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.

Review: Thomas Struth at the Metropolitan Museum

Struth PantheonThomas Struth (German, born 1954) is widely recognized as one of the most important photographers from the second half of the 20th century. In this exhibition, one can discover the Metropolitan Museum’s unparalleled holdings of photographs from this master photographer. An intimate exhibition in size, it nevertheless allows visitors to gauge Struth’s absolute grandeur.

The life-size photographs are an almost recursive encounter. Struth presents groups of captivated tourists, embraced by art and architecture that seem to devour them with their magnitude. This can be said of the resounding presence of Milan Cathedral, the Pantheon in Rome or the Imperial City in Tiananmen Square. The NASDAQ may be another face of the great forces that deceitfully invade our space. However, unlike the other monuments, its presence does not gather much notice, admiration or celebration, despite its immensity.

The exhibition is also an opportunity to discover or re-discover the series of street scenes – mostly from the late 1970s – from New York, Venice or Chicago. Although these scenes are an ode to global architecture (or its globalization), they leave the viewer unsettled due to the striking absence of human figures. Unless united by a devotional gaze, people only appear in Struth’s universe in intimate settings, for example Eleonor and Giles Robertson, both historians, in their Edinburgh home or the Restorers in their studio at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples.

The exhibition manages to be compelling and comprehensive with only 25 images from the late 1970s to 2013.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, until February 16, 2015

Reine Ullmann Okuliar


Credit: Thomas Struth, Pantheon, Rome (1990), via MetMuseum.org