Portraiture has always confounded me. As a photographer, I’ve struggled when I’ve had to deal with actual human beings as subject matter. Especially when they are directly in front of me, posing for a formal portrait. I am just unable to capture the essence of a person through a photograph. That’s not to say that I don’t ever take pictures of people. It’s just that they tend to be in an environment, usually on the street, or part of a larger, more complex scene. At the same time, as a viewer, I am constantly drawn to a great photographic portrait. Needless to say that our western pop culture is awash in portraits, many focusing on those in power, or those with celebrity. Add to the mix the current frenzy of selfies clogging up social media platforms, and one could deduce that perhaps we’ve hit the breaking point where the whole idea of a photographic portrait has transformed into something other than a thoughtful study of not just the appearance of the subject, but also a deeper exploration of their mood, their character, their psychological makeup. Most portraits today, to my eyes, seem more self-aggrandizing, self-serving; propaganda mechanisms more than anything else.
With this cynicism in mind, I focus my gaze today on a most beautiful portrait. Titled “Black Eye” it is by a true American master, Sally Mann. Sally Mann has made a career of photographing her immediate family, most notably her children. This approach has brought her much acclaim, but also much criticism. The critics are usually from outside the photography / art worlds. The puritanical, religious “moral police” that exists in the United States have, on numerous occasions, worked themselves into a foaming-mouth frenzy over the intimate work of Mann. Their objections are almost always due to the fact that Mann has no reservation for showing her (then) young children, both male and female, in the nude. The rabid critics have dismissed the work and pornographic at worst, exploitative of innocence at best.
The image I am discussing today is of a fully clothed child, the artist’s daughter, but still has been cause for alarm by many narrow-minded critics. More on that in a few moments. Let’s take a closer look at the photograph. It is a black and white image. A young girl sits in an antique looking chair, and is positioned squarely in the middle of the frame. Her eyes are closed, her arms are crossed. She is bathed in wonderful, soft natural light, coming from a window that is in the distance, the edge shown in the photo, out of focus. The hair on the girl looks like it has been blown to the side by a sudden soft breeze. The focus on this image is interesting to me. The detail on the white lace below her neck indicates a shallow depth of field. The hair and chair shows a varying degree of focus as well. The curls of hair along the lower neck is a foil to the unkemptness of the blown hair along the top of her head. Her hands are crossed, but at ease, and they look as though they are cradling something. The wonderful downslope of her dark lips brings a certain melancholy to her appearance. And then we have the black eye. How did this happen? The zealot critics have projected evidence of child abuse onto the photo. But as we know, kids get all sorts of bumps and bruises while the explore their world. And I can help but think that her eye looks swollen due to a bug bite. Especially when you consider that Mann and her family live in rural Virginia, there are all sorts of reasons a child might be sporting a swollen, black eye.