Photographers, you will never become artists. All you are is mere copiers.
– Charles Baudelaire, French poet and critic
When Charles Baudelaire, the French critic of photography, said that photographers were ‘mere copiers,’ he was speaking against how photography seemed to be a way to copy nature and present it as an archive of existence. He did not consider photography an art.
Baudelaire wrote in the late 1880s, “Let photography…be the secretary and record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons…Let it save crumbling ruins from oblivion, all those precious things which crave a place in the archives of our memories; in all these things, photography will deserve our thanks and applause.” But he cautioned, “…once it be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!”
Baudelaire spoke of photography as documentation and nothing more. He relegated its usefulness and function in society as a mere record keeping tool. He cautioned against photography being an imaginative tool, a tool for artistic expression.
In the 1920s with the arrival of Cartier-Bresson on the scene, snapshot photography was born. It meant that photographers no longer posed and set the stage for their portraits, but rather portraits became more of a found art; you captured a moment when time and action come to a beautiful conclusion. Cartier-Bresson was a hunter for the found portrait. He elevated portraiture into what Jean Noel Jenneney in his retrospective called “something rescued in the nick of time, before a whole world vanishes for ever” 2. Cartier-Bresson taught us that to capture a portrait, we must wait for the moment when everything falls into place, and then we click.
Every portrait photographer knows the common wisdom that to make a portrait work, the subject’s eyes have to be sharp. In portraiture, photographers traditionally have let the eyes do the talking, and the rest of the face to do the elaboration. The eyes allow us to make a connection; the face is a canvas of emotion.When I was studying portraiture, I studied the great masters’ work, and like a dutiful student tried to emulate them. Steve McCurry with his veiled Afghan girl, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange with their poetic Dust Bowl portraits, the Brazilian Sebastião Salgado and his textured stories of laborers, and most recently, Andrzej Dragan whose portraits are eerie manipulations in digital format. Again and again, the vast collection of portraiture since the 19th century has been a focus on how the face tells the story. Character, the body of work tell us, is in facial gesture.
When I first started studying portraiture, I pored over the great masters’ work, and like a dutiful student tried to emulate them. Steve McCurry with his veiled Afghan girl, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange with their poetic Dust Bowl portraits, the Brazilian Sebastião Salgado and his textured stories of laborers, and most recently, Andrzej Dragan whose portraits are eerie manipulations in digital format. Again and again, the vast collection of portraiture since the 19th century has been a focus on how the face tells the story. Character, the body of work tell us, is in facial gesture.
Then in 2007, I chanced upon an assignment of photographing Catholic nuns. The sisters asked me to join them for their Good Friday prayers, and because I had limited time in which to tell the story of their devotion, I found myself abstracting the portraits. The assignment was to find the essence of the sisters’ devotion to their vocation; I found that distillation in the abstractions of their hands—the portrait of a nun’s life is in her hands: for hard work, helping others, and prayer.
The faceless portrait became a central question in my photography. I began to explore how to tell a person’s story without showing their face in the frame. What was it about body language that told stories without the distraction of the face? How could the story come from the sculpture of body and environment?
Portraiture without the face is, for me, a rejection of Baudelaire’s claim that photography is simply an archival craft. The faceless portrait is an imaginative frame through which I must interpret observation. It is being attentive to the gestalt of expression and intention in a human being. It is, for me, an inventive imagination of identity in those I am fortunate to meet.
This article first appeared as a feature on Lightstalking.com and has been updated by the author for this blog.
“Camera Austria” 14/84, Annie Le Brun “The Feeling of Nature at the Close of the Twentieth Century”, page 20.
“Introduction.” Henri Cartier Bresson; The man, the image, the world. Thames and Hudson, LTD. London: 2006.