October 2011

Arts & Letters

What’s in a face? Aspects of portrait photography

By Sebastian Smee
Art Gallery of NSW - 24 September 2011 to 5 February 2012

What can you read into a photograph of a face? Hurt. Happiness. Confidence. Contempt. There’s no limit. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, you can spend hours staring at family snapshots, greedily seeking – and often finding – things that eluded you in the maelstrom of domestic life. My son, breaking into a toothily anarchic smile: he was proud, ecstatically happy that day. My mother looking tired, appraising, concerned: I must have said something that left her unconvinced.

The camera sees such things – or so we think. Its stealth and detachment allow it to pick up on hidden currents, revealing anxieties, infatuations, dislikes, mirth – the whole gamut of uncensored emotion. And yet doubts invariably set in. The game feels fluky, misleading. My son, I now remember (a second snapshot, taken seconds later, reminds me), was heartbroken that day. My mother was the life of the party.

Great photographic portraits, I find, are rarely concerned with the business of mind-reading, and only occasionally do they entangle themselves in the thickets of personality. (These are best left to novelists and the occasional gifted psychologist.) At their best, they are like quiet tributaries leading to deeper waters. Describing the photographs of Bill Henson, curator Isobel Crombie once wrote of “the infinite suggestiveness of the face attentive to its own inner drama”. And in truth, this infinite, unfathomable suggestiveness might as easily be sparked by the image of a girl with her eyes closed as by one whose eyes engage us.

Many of the photographs in What’s in a Face? remind us that one can be intimately present and very far away at the same time. Photography, with its haunting combination of a tangible presence marking temporal loss, is in many ways the ideal medium for showing this.

Is there a more beautiful portrait by an Australian than Sandy Edwards’ Portrait of Marina Looking? The composition, with its unexpectedly symmetrical arrangement of hand and arms, its fragile lozenges of light amid encroaching shadow, is unforgettable. One cannot guess what Marina’s thoughts are; one only knows that finding out would entail heavy responsibility.

And then, of course, there is Carol Jerrems’ matchless Vale Street #2 – a photograph as sexy, as challenging, and yet also, strangely, as tender as any I know. You could read almost anything into the young woman’s open face. It’s the whole image that breathes with the force and fragility of youth.

I’ve not seen the show, but I have seen reproductions of all the works. The curator, Judy Annear, takes us through two centuries of photographic portraits from Australia and abroad, from Paul Foelsche’s quasi-scientific portraits of Aboriginal girls, women and men through to Loretta Lux’s The Waiting Girl. None of these pictures has anything definitive to say about the people depicted therein. The best of them do, however, have the capacity to pierce our hearts.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


'What’s in a Face? Aspects of Portrait Photography', Art Gallery of NSW - 24 September 2011 to 5 February 2012
Cover: October 2011

October 2011