Overview, Images

The Portrait - a curatorial essay

Josephine Mead

The Portrait as an entity, object, gesture and device is ubiquitous, universal and completely evasive. Its meaning is never fully fixed. Its past is troubled. When coupled with the complex history of photography – another elusive field – it becomes further complicated. In curating this exhibition we entered into a photographic discourse, trying to textually unfold and expound the complexities and possibilities of the portrait. We invited ten artists to respond, creating a portrait while considering what a portrait is and can be. Some of the artists selected were from strictly photographic backgrounds and others were from multidisciplinary fields, and were asked to think through notions of the portrait in a photographic sense. To ask an artist to create a portrait sounds like a simple task, but we found that the broadness of this idea created complexities that were not expected. When reflecting on what portraiture means, for me, I return to one of my favourite relationships – that between images and language…

A photograph’s meaning will change and shift over time. It is influenced by cultural context, ethical, critical or emotional progressions, understandings and fluctuations. Its meanings shift as a result of personal experience. Language can assist us in examining, simplifying and/or further-complicating these intricacies. Allan Sekula considers this tension between simplicity and complexity, and the photographs relation to language, suggesting that ‘a photograph is an utterance of some sort, that it carries, or is, a message. However, the definition also implies that the photograph is an “incomplete” utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context-determined.’ [1] Nothing in a photograph is ever fully fixed. Likewise, we can be determined and defined by the reality and experiences that we find ourselves within.

This fluidity that the photographic portrait contains is echoed in language. In both fields, and in our extended lives in general, we are conditioned and defined through the contexts we find ourselves within. The speaker (or writer/reader) and the environment in which the words are spoken (or read/written) dictates how their meaning exists in the world. As stated by Sekula, ‘we might formulate this position as follows: a photograph communicated by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text; it is this text, or system of hidden linguistic propositions, that carries the photograph into the domain of readability.’ [2] Through touching base with the artists over the last few weeks, the value of text – through conversation and writing – has come to the fore. Several of the artists have turned to text to assist while they confront the task of presenting a portrait — Abigail Varney offers a string of text messages aside her work, Nayuka Gorrie and Timmah Ball have written reflections on portraits and the other artists offered us words, via email and video call, to talk through their findings. Of course, nothing can ever be fully defined or fixed in words. Likewise, as Victor Burgin proposes, ‘work in semiotics showed that there is no ‘language’ of photography, no single signifying system (as opposed to technical apparatus) upon which all photographs depend (in the sense in which all texts in English ultimately depend upon the English language); there is, rather, a heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw.’ [3] There is always room for new interpretations.

The generous text that Nayuka Gorrie has offered questions what it means to be observed and the social and racial discrimination that consistently revolves around acts of observation within our society. Gorrie asks who we are ‘when we are not being observed’ [4] and considers that ‘when a cop kills a black man and the body cam is rolling, does it matter whether or not someone was observed?’ [5] In Daniel Palmer’s ruminations on “relational portraiture” they suggest that ‘the degree to which subjects are empowered to participate in the photographic act is closely related to their social power.’ [6] Historically, the camera has not been a fair observer. Some portraits are valued unfairly over others; the act of the photographer can be a violent one; and inaction and lack of critical observation when viewing a photograph, usually on the part of white people, can be equally destructive. The observational aspect of portrait photography throughout history is deeply problematic. The portrait has waded through muddy and contentious waters, being dragged through the ongoing destructive project of colonialism and invasion. Photographic portraits have been taken without consent— taken in an effort to situate the sitter in a place of disempowerment. There is a reason why the word “taken” has become connected to the act of photography. The camera can capture experiences where moments of harm have deprived the sitter of their own power, as illustrated in Gorrie’s recollection of ‘a police photo of my mother’s bloated face, broken nose and bruises from strangulation around her throat. I remember the events surrounding the photo but it is the photo that I remember the most.’ [7] Photographs become a construction of and housing place for memories. Their resonance can last long after our presence. However, the camera can and has been taken back as an act of anti-colonial force. As Gorrie implies, artists such as Hayley Millar Baker have shown us that sovereignty can be claimed and held through acts of photographic portraiture. At the same time, one can also purposefully step out of the portrait in order to find themself and claim power. As Gorrie suggests, ‘unobserved is the most honest any of us can be.’ [8]

Sara Tautuku Orme has reclaimed the camera’s ability to observe, turning it into an anti-colonial device, through creating works that celebrate her patrilineal heritage (Ngati Awa & Te Arawa). This action has been inspired by the way in which Orme’s life has been defined by the complexities of her own self-portrait:

‘It would be fair to say that most people, both White and Maori, who hear about my ‘Maori heritage’ assume that I must be just ‘a bit’, and that I’m probably part of the new renaissance of Waka blondes who are renewing their cultural interest. But the truth is, I’m more than a bit and I have grown up very much knowing my heritage, my whakapapa, my whanau, my marae, my turangawaewae. The hardships, the love, the boil ups, the pipi digging, the crayfish diving, the poverty, the toughness, the cultural wealth, this has always been part of my life. […] But racism for me is about the spirit of those before me. It is not about colour or economics but the struggles, pain and wisdom of my iwi and my whanau. I am blonde, I am white, and I am considered privileged. I am all those things. But I know I also carry the struggles of my Dad, my Grandparents, my Great Grandparents, my iwi and their significant tribal losses and various historic punishments for being Maori. For them this was closely linked to their race. For me it is that spirit that has never left.’[9]

For ‘The Portrait’ Orme presents a new work – a large photograph of Darling, also known as Darz – a mother of 7, as part of her ongoing Ko Toku Awa project. The project explores ‘the spiritual connection with whenua (land), tupuna (ancestors) and wairua (spirit). Ko Toku Awa draws strongly on the complexity of colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand, The Raupatu, (land theft) consequences of dislocation and assumes norms that are referenced from history, memory, whenua (land) and moko kauae (chin tattoo representing tupuna ancestors) and whanau (family).

The awa (river) is a toanga (treasure) towards identity and is the mauri (life force). Darling embraces her own mana motuhake (self-determination) – “I submit and let my awa swallow me. Through that comes my real power. I can forget about the cancer growing inside me for this one moment … My wiarua (spirit) is orbiting out of me as I am lost in my own journey, my vulnerability, my broken, my happy, my free, my everything, my whole tangata whenua (people of the land).”’ [10] Through a shared deep understanding of and dedication to whanau (family), the photographer and the photographed have found many moments of connection. Through the undeniable strength possessed by Darling this portrait symbolizes the value of family, story and whakapapa (genealogy).

The portrait is an object of value and objects of value lead us to think of currency. Sam Lieblich’s work, from his ongoing investigation of fungible tokens, focuses on the evolution of portraits of sovereigns on coinage and bank notes. Lieblich’s interest lies in ‘the way that the sovereign, supreme amongst citizens, becomes associated with a supremely interchangeable portrait. That is, for a coin that bears the portrait of the emperor, [there is a notion that] this one is just as good as that one. The sovereign who makes an attempt to centre their own personage, ends up dissolving themselves ever more fully in the economy, and becoming co-extensive with the form of value, in the process losing their own qualities.’ [11] As faces morph into one another through video, we consider how interchangeable we are. How valuable is your own portrait? These threads are also picked up in the essay that Timmah Ball has written for the exhibition, where she makes reference to the value and currency of the artist bio pic. When considering the value of our own image, we may consider to what degree the photographer can be considered as the author of that image. As Ariella Azoulay notes, ‘a photograph is neither the product of a single person, despite the concept of “author” having been established in relation to photography, nor is it even solely a product of human hands. A photographic image, then, can at most be entrusted to someone for a certain time. It is a deposit, temporarily given over to whomever has it for safekeeping, but such persons are never its owner.’ [12] As Lieblich suggests, ‘I am very interested in the way that the One becomes dissoluble in the Many when it is made into a token. The token only demands to be called non-fungible precisely because the nature of the token is to be fungible.’ [13] Everyone is connected and value is never fixed. As Hans Hess has pointed out:

‘If we look at a coin of Hadrian or Constantine, we look at it as a work of art, a finely modelled portrait head, a very useful document for art historians, a thing of rarity and beauty. If we look at a 50p piece, we do not think of it as a work of art because it is currency and still functions as money, but it is as much a work of art as the coin of Hadrian which was also used as money in its own day. If, however, our coin is taken out of circulation and goes to a numismatic collection in Japan, let us say, it loses its function and becomes an objet d’art.’ [14]

What is a portrait? By definition it is ‘a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.’ [15] Lisa Sorgini presents a portrait without a face in view – a child, standing with their body slightly to the side, holding an orange balloon that hides their face from view. They are standing in what appears to be a public carnival – a site synonymous with childhood joy. But the darkness of the image brings a certain level of pensiveness. The triggering orange of the balloon could either be a visual motif for possibility and light, or an ominous colour, suggesting danger. It is hard to tell and the lack of a face to connect the body with leaves one unsure. In this portrait Sorgini keenly observes the slipperiness that exists within all images, a quality that photographers often challenge through the notions of trace and gaze. Theories of photography examined by Azoulay take ‘into account all the participants in photographic acts – camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator – approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these. None of these have the capacity to seal off this effect and determine its sole meaning.’ [16]

Anne Moffat’s triptych, ‘Mum and Dad getting beamed up’, presents a chance moment of family connection at the end of the long Melbourne lockdown. These images are relational objects. In the words of Arielle Azoulay they, ‘bear the traces of the meeting between photographed persons and the photographer.’ [17] Azoulay also considers that while ‘photography may appear to be a distinctive object of the contemplative life (vita contemplative), a moment in which all movements have been eliminated, it is actually deeply embedded in the active life (viva active); it attests to action and continues to take part in it, always engaged in an ongoing present’. [18] These photographs by Moffat are active. They speak of the activity of the moment – bearing one’s face to the sun as request for reprieve; and activity of the future, using the sun’s physical and sensorial qualities as a wish for a future without lockdown, where families can be together without restriction. These photographs were taken when the artist could meet her family again for the first time after restrictions were eased. Moffat has created portraits towards a hopeful future.

When considering ‘the portrait’, one thing remains clear – it is complex, problematic, slippery and brimming with ongoing possibility.

[1] Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in ‘Thinking photography’, ed. Victor Burgin (Macmillan: London, 1982), 85.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Burgin, “Looking at Photographs,” in ‘Thinking photography’, ed. Victor Burgin (Macmillan: London, 1982), 143.
[4] Gorrie, Nayuka, ‘Under observation’, written text produced for ‘The Portrait’ at Blindside, 2022.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Palmer, Daniel, ‘Photography and Collaboration : From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing’ (Taylor & Francis Group: UK, 2017), 109.
[7] Gorrie, Nayuka, Under observation, written text produced for ‘The Portrait’ at Blindside, 2022.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Orme, Sara Tautuku, ‘Growing up blonde and Maori’, 2020, https://www.saraorme.com/post/https-www-saraorme-com-post-growing-up-blonde-and-maori.
[10] Written correspondence with the artist Sara Tautuku Orme, 2022.
[11] Written correspondence with the artist Sam Lieblich, 2022.
[12] Azoulay, Ariella, ‘The Civil Contract of Photography’, (Zone Books: New York, 2008), 98.
[13] Written correspondence with the artist Sam Lieblich, 2022.
[14] Tagg, John quoting Hans Hess, “The Currency of the Photographer” in ‘Thinking photography’, ed. Victor Burgin (Macmillan: London, 1982), 120.
[15] Definition by Oxford Languages.
[16] Azoulay, Ariella, ‘The Civil Contract of Photography’, (Zone Books: New York, 2008), 21.
[17] Ibid., 136.
[18] Ibid., 90.