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.

@SebastianSmee

'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

From the front page

“Death spiral”

Who is private health insurance helping, exactly?

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs

Image of Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum: A true journalistic believer

Celebrating the contribution of an Australian media legend

Cover image of ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America


In This Issue

Scene from 'The Theft of Sita'. Image courtesy of Melbourne Festival.

Music theatre masterpiece

An Australian–Indonesian production - ‘The Theft of Sita’, 2000

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Robert Helpmann & Anna Pavlova

Theatre masterpiece

Tom Wright & Benedict Andrews - ‘The War of the Roses’, 2009

The incendiary Meow Meow, 2011. © Magnus Hastings

Queen of the night

Meeting Meow Meow


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum: A true journalistic believer

Celebrating the contribution of an Australian media legend

Image from 'Never Look Away'

Art life: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Never Look Away’ and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’

By barely disguising an account of the life of Gerhard Richter, the German director fails the artist and filmgoers

Image from 'Mystify: Michael Hutchence'

All veils and misty: Richard Lowenstein’s ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

The insider documentary that wipes clear the myths obscuring the INXS singer

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop


More in Noted

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Cover image of ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty


Read on

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs

Image from ‘Booksmart’

Meritocracy rules in ‘Booksmart’

Those who work hard learn to play hard in Olivia Wilde’s high-school comedy

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

The government’s perverse pursuit of surplus

Aiming to be back in black in the current climate is bad economics

Image of Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Blixa Bargeld

The German musician presides over a suitably unpredictable evening


×
×