Plastic people

Edward Barber doubts if portraits have ever provided an honest representation of their subject

The curious mix of photographers and artists on show includes a fair few who are exploring the digital medium’s potential for manipulation, together with others whose subjects are manipulated before the picture is taken. William A Ewing, the show’s curator, argues that we are moving into a new phase – beyond a mirror-like representation of faces to a more conscious form of image-making. Personally, I didn’t buy into his view that, until now, we have always taken portraits at face value, or that we are clinging to a ‘ludicrous notion of the portrait’. Even less convincing is the idea that this collection represents some sort of movement in portraiture – the ‘new photographers of the face’ according to Ewing. He looks for strategies and common threads as he rehearses arguments for his new book. Ewing’s manifesto for what these photographers supposedly believe makes interesting reading – I wondered how many of them had actually signed up to the 16-point summary of beliefs attributed to them.

Apart from the chance to see 100 works by 70 international artists, there’s nothing new here really. Alison Jackson’s scenarios are obvious, formulaic fakes. Loretta Lux’s Dorothea is bizarre and doll-like. Rudolf Schaeffer’s Dead Faces are derivative, but fascinating. Valérie Belin’s look-a-likes of Michael Jackson are just more Postmodern irony.

Overall, there are too many images that say far more about the photographers and their signature style than they say about the subjects. In this company Rineke Dijkstra’s frontal ‘old school’-style portraits are a relief. Some of us photographers still believe (perhaps naively) that it is important to be truthful to your subject, rather than use them as a vehicle for your lastest smart-arsed gimmick.

We really don’t need this show to tell us that portraits are fictions masquerading as facts. Photographs have always been manipulated (enhanced, retouched, treated) at some stage. The only significant change is the speed at which the intervention or manipulation can take place – whether it’s plastic surgery, laser treatment or post-production on the digitised image.

For designers and art directors with a deadline to meet, access to digital images and the ease of manipulation must be a relief. No more selecting the right photographer for the job. No more anxious waiting around, wondering if they will come up with the goods – will the weather be fine, will the models look right or whatever. Now you just go shopping on-line. Find the image. Instant gratification. Make any adjustments or modifications that you want. No photographers protesting about integrity of the image. You have complete control.

About Face – Photography and the Death of the Portrait is at the Hayward Gallery, from 24 June – 5 September 2004.

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