Looking at the Work of Master Photographers
The Big Picture
In this series of posts, Looking at the Work of Master Photographers, I will examine some of the work of photographers I admire. In these posts, I will attempt to understand the photographers I am drawn to and better understand their photographs. Writing about a topic is often the best way to truly understand what you think you already know.
The photo above is from editorial work that Larry Sultan did on behalf of Disneyworld. I remember seeing it in a magazine at the time and this photo struck me. Sultan’s “Pictures from Home” is a classic which has probably inspired an entire genre of photography. Here I want to investigate a photo that might not be as well known.
The Big Camera
Portraiture in our post-modern age is often derided as a vestige of a less sophisticated and less complicated time when a photograph still carried with it a veracity it longer has. Today, where images are everywhere, the notion that a single photo can capture the essence of a person is seen as naive, or worse. So “serious” portraiture is not really taken seriously at all. Our Instagram-cell-phone-everywhere-selfie culture is seen itself as a strategy to undermine “serious” portraiture, where behind the goofy faces made in front of device de jour there presumably resides a veritable deconstructionist.
And yet, all of this misses the point. Photography has always fed our ego and our narcissism. Photography was barely out of its teens when the Carte de Visite set the world on a manic quest to collect these “trading cards” into portfolios - a set of behaviors that has been fairly constant since, straight through to Instagram.
What’s old is new again and a good portrait is what it has always been: an adventure in framing, interaction, and the freezing of micro-gestures that otherwise occur at fractions of a second. Humans are incredibly perceptive to such non-verbal language as is described with great precision in a photographic portrait. Perhaps we can say instead that it is not that a good portrait expresses the sitter’s soul but rather that it inspires its viewers to imagine it can. Portraits allow us to flex these very ancient muscles. We are piqued. We explore. And often we find tell-tale signs that hint at depths beneath the two dimensional surface.
The vast majority of portraiture - the millions of them taken daily - is an exercise in hero/not hero. If hero, the subject is given a halo, a good angle, a serious or sexy expression, the send button is triggered and off it goes to Mount Olympus; or the subject is decidedly not a hero, makes a goofy face at the camera and exits stage left. In either case, the engagement with the camera is fleeting and circumstantial, a reactionary response to the camera’s beguiling passivity. For the viewer, the result is frequently boredom. Click.
In contrast to the gaiety of a selfie, where the ego knows no bounds, a proper portrait session is usually an awkward affair and most prefer it over and done with as quickly as possible - both sitter and photographer. The technology at our disposal almost seems designed to help us overcome this dread: our machines can focus, set exposure, help us frame - all executed perfectly and in an instant. Then, unpreturbed, we are off to the next distraction.
A view camera however is another matter entirely and it forces the individuals involved in the process to slow down and sink more comfortably into their selves and gradually get over the anxiety of thinking self-reflexively: this is me thinking about me being me at this moment forever and ever.
All the World is a Stage
Good portraiture has a lot in common with the Greek proscenium; it is a stage on which we bear witness to the spectacle of personality. In portraiture exists the triumph of the public persona and the despair of the ego seeking asylum in private reverie, sometimes in the same photo. Regardless, the ego is always on a stage in a portrait. The personality performs, however willing or not, and the photographic medium provides the platform.
The picture problem is how to frame and present this stage so that the personality can be given relief. It could be, simply, light and shadow from which a personality, an ego, or an idea emerges. Or it can be a social space which contextualizes, reveals, imprisons. For Sultan, the stage is the suburban landscape, which often appears to be a private landscape, but is actually anything but. Sultan’s suburban spaces are rich, grand stages, highly cultivated and designed for effect. The large format photograph is a perfect vehicle for this kind of picture as the many details they include need to have adequate resolution to make them evident and forceful, which is why such photographs, although completely straight as such, appear somewhat surreal.
A google image search of “Larry Sultan Disneyland” will return quite a few Aladdins. Sultan is such a Disney-ish name that it seems apropos, calling to mind Orientalist fantasies with Hollywood endings. Sultan. Disney. Wishes. The photo illustrating this post could almost be a modern out-take from a live-action version of such: the white princess guarded by an imposing Black man.
There are so many visual references and puns in this photo that unpacking them can quickly devolve into a game or decoding a cipher. I’ll try to avoid this trap and instead refer back to Sultan’s great skill at staging a portrait. Here the staging is an actual stage, and so is in some ways a Rosetta stone for much of Sultan’s work.
Like the photos from The Valley, where we peek behind the scenes of the pornography industry in the San Fernando Valley, we are permitted a glimpse behind the surface but the depth we find is deceptive. Yes, we seem to be given access behind the stage at Disney, but the stage is not what it appears to be: there is yet another curtain which we cannot see behind, and the plastic look of the building material makes one suspect that the stage itself could be wheeled away at any moment. So our stage is improvisational, impressive until you look too closely. It’s the stage most of us grow to know very well over time- the stage of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut…. but that is a thread for another post. In short, what we see behind the scenes, at Disney and in The Valley, is only another kind of stage.
So we have frames within frames, stages within stages. But who is the subject of this portrait? Is it the princess behind the curtain, or the man providing us a glimpse? Both? Neither? Renaldo, the man holding back the curtain has the look of someone who has been here before. He’s used to blending into the background: his shirt is almost the same color as the curtain. He is impassive. His headset is in the listening position. His pen is clicked closed. His cell phone wrapped in his belt. All of these things set the stage: Disney drone. Inverted masculinity. Servant.
Precisely because it is a flat surface, the mirror of photography has a way of puncturing everyday reality. We know that this man is named Renaldo because he wears a name badge. He wears this so people who may not know him can call out to him and ask him to do things for them. In the social world, this sign is not proof of individuality and agency, quite the opposite. But in a photograph it actually is those things.
There is something else that makes Renaldo special. It’s what he keeps in a plastic holder hanging from a clip at his waist. Perhaps it is the rear side of his Disney pass key. In it is a photo of a little girl wearing a backpack and holding a lunchbox, like it is her first day of school. I imagine this is not standard Disney issue - that would be too creepy indeed. Instead, it is probably a momento. Perhaps a photo of his daughter that he keeps nearby, an expression of his individuality. A protest. A declaration. A mundane, simple, everyday portrait that he likes keeping at his side.
It gives him individuality and asserts that he is not just a Disney drone. But Renaldo cannot set himself free so easily. You imagine, say in 15 years, he’ll be drying his eyes on her wedding day where she will be dressed in white, like a princess, and then off to make more little princesses. The circle will be complete and Disney will have his revenge.
This plastic covered snapshot is certainly the smallest frame in the photo, but like a Mandlebrot set, it mimics the frame containing it. A frame, framing a frame framing a frame. It’s photographs all the way down.