By Alison Green
From the book Free Ground
It is well known that the invention of still photography made portraiture democratic. Previously it had belonged to the very rich, but within a few years of the invention of the camera demand for photographic portraits exploded. Some measure of this is revealed in the claim made by a New York photographic studio that it was taking up to a thousand portraits a day in the 1850s.
Now we are used to being photographed all the time, whether without our knowledge or explicit consent—by security cameras and the like—or informally by friends and family. A portrait, however, is a particular kind of picture, not a snapshot or a candid image. It’s a rare occurrence in anybody’s life, unlikely to happen by chance. When Trevor Appleson arrived on a beach or in a car park in Cape Town, set up his portable studio and announced he would be taking portraits for the next few hours, he was not short of willing subjects. Many waited a long time, some elected to queue twice. Taking their place in front of a black curtain, standing in the generous Cape Town sunlight, each person in turn posed for Appleson’s camera, waited for the countdown and—click—the picture was made.
The portrait is different from other kinds of pictures of people because the subject has made a conscious choice to be there. They’re likely to think about how they’ll present themselves. There is something ritualised about the process; certain gestures, poses and expressions repeat themselves despite the individuality of the sitter. A projection also takes place. Each person considers how he or she wishes to be seen, in other words, how he or she will be seen by others. In this sense, the desire to have one’s portrait taken seems connected to an aspiration to be part of history, to be indexed, catalogued, even celebrated. The ﬁlm critic André Bazin noted this when he wrote that sitting for a portrait is like having the last word in an argument with death.
There is another side, however, to the notion of preserving oneself for posterity, and this is where photography becomes a tricky art—a complex agreement between sitter and photographer. In his well-known book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes spends some time discussing what happens when someone poses for a portrait. From his own experience of having his picture taken by a well-known photographer, he arrives at a fascinating idea: being photographed triggers a process of self-imitation. In his words, “onceI feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body of myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” Barthes sees this as a kind of death, a mortiﬁcation which is at odds with a different desire to see oneself as alive. There is, he thinks, a deep mismatch between the photographic image, which is still, and the ﬂuid state of human subjectivity. We can extend this idea to say that there is a contradiction between wanting to see oneself represented in some totality and the fact that this desire is rarely satisﬁed. This begins to explain why portraits are endlessly fascinating to look at. For the subject, the lure of being photographed is the promise of cheating time. But looking at portraits is compelling because such control over one’s representation is an illusion. In contrast you see the ﬂaws—therefore what is speciﬁc, and inevitably human—about the person you’re looking at.
The process of being represented has two senses: ﬁrst, being turned into an image and second, counting, or mattering. In many cases, Appleson photographed people who are otherwise not seen—workers, gangsters, drug users, and those simply impoverished. His photographs show us people at the moment they present themselves for the camera, and the politics of this is important. Appleson’s space is neutral; everyone has the potential to be equal there. And yet, although Appleson’s photographs are replete with the economic and social life of their South African setting, they are neither a political art, nor do they make politics into something merely aesthetic. They create a space for self-representation and lead us to the speciﬁc, and therefore human realities to be found there.