Portrait Confusion

It has been a long time since I felt the desire to take someone’s portrait. And by a long time I mean years. I used to take portraits a lot; it was one of the reasons I fell in love with photography in the first place. Most portraits I have taken over the last 5 or more years have been at someone else’s request… a band photo here… an author’s portrait there. During postgrad I took pictures of my sister (long my preferred, even sole model) but they were for part of a photographic poetry comic book, the images purposefully blurred and distant, not really of Kim. Before that were the self-portraits in Time Out of Place, but these too are abstract, my figure moving, even multiplied through long exposure.

The lack of portraits in recent work isn’t because I was avoiding it, or had purposefully given it up; it was simply that nothing inspired me. My work is driven by ideas, questions and concepts. Without a reason to take portraits I had simply stopped. That changed last year, not because I suddenly had an idea for a project but because I met someone whose portrait I wanted to take.

When I first asked Finley if he would mind my taking his picture I thought I knew what I wanted to do with it. That certainty vanished when I realised I was trying to shoehorn his portrait into a project it had no place in as a way of justifying why I had taken it. Once I stopped trying to force them I found myself (and the photographs) joyfully released while simultaneously left floating at sea, unsure of direction or purpose. Or if I needed direction or purpose.

Over the last year I have done three portrait shoots with Finley and will admit to still finding myself in a state of discomfort because I don’t know why I want to, or what I’m trying to express, or what the idea is, or even if there is an idea at all. What I do know is that every time I take Finley’s picture I end up with something new, and that every time I think I’ve done the last shoot that something new makes me want to try again to see what happens next. I start the shoot thinking this will be it, and once I have the photos edited, I know it isn’t. I find myself wondering about location, cameras and film choice, about pose, clothing and lighting, about photographic portrait theory, and art history. I am looking for something that will give me direction because I think this might be a project but I simply don’t know. And then I wonder if maybe I don’t need to know yet, if perhaps it will simply come together if I keep shooting.

Luckily for me Finley is a dream model, relaxed and easy in front of a camera and great company for the hours it takes to get my images. I could have stopped after the first shoot; I had a wonderful portrait and no particular reason to keep going.  But the more I studied the image the more certain I became that I wanted to try again. Why I did not, and do not know. I simply knew then, as I know now, that there is something more to be found.

The main difference between portraits and the other images I have taken over the years is that portraiture requires cooperation, even collaboration. When I don’t know the what, why or wherefore of the pictures I am taking, of the project I appear to be building then needing this cooperation is both enjoyable and uncomfortable. I don’t know if I can or should plan for more, if I should keep trying to chase whatever it is I am working out, because that choice is not entirely my own. It is shared: a choice to be made by both Finley and myself. There is a sensitivity required in portrait photography; the same sensitivity one would need collecting aural histories or writing a biography. I am representing someone else, someone whose opinion on the images matters as much, if not more, than my own. The choices, what happens with editing and publication, aren’t entirely my own. I have handed Finely total veto power, over the individual images but also over wherever this is leading, or if it is leading anywhere. This is so different from my chosen subject of recent years, the woods and forests of South Devon, that I keep expecting it to bother me. Instead I find joy in my endless surprise at Finley’s willingness to continue working with me.

All my reactions and thoughts to this (accidental) portrait project are a contradictory tangle. I am left with questions, and questions about questions, a muddle of whats and whys. It is a mess of confusion, frustration and discomfort at my own inability to work out:

1.     If this is a project

and 2. If it is, what it is

The very same photographs that are causing this confusion are also holding it at bay, keeping me moving forward into the unknown, a barrier holding back a flood or a lighthouse in a storm. I shoot another roll, or edit another photograph and I am inspired. Inspired by the search and by this new, different way of creating a project. Inspired to keep calm in the face of confusion and to keep trying until I find out where this is leading. I shall let you know when I work it out. Until then, you can see a selection of the portraits HERE.