Before photography, people — usually wealthy and seated in positions of celebrity or power — would immortalize themselves by commissioning a portrait. An artist would come in and have their subject sit for hours while they were dutifully sketched, painted in various studies and finally revealed in a finished painting. Of course, the artist’s success would hinge on how accurately they captured the subject’s features, which, depending on how rich and powerful they might be, might also include the ability to flatter them to a certain degree by appealing to their vanity in the finished product.
Photography offered a whole different set of issues because, for one, it was blatantly unapologetic in its graphic representation of what a subject looked like, and for another, it was not considered artistic in any way. At least that’s the way it was in the medium’s infancy.
Whether rendered as a photograph or painting, portraiture, of course, has evolved in a wide variety of ways, swaying the needle from hard-edged realistic paintings to works infused by the artist’s personal response to his or her subject. And, as part of this evolution, artists themselves have worked hard to understand the ramifications of what it means to create a portrait.
At the Harwood Museum of Art, a panel of artists working in paint and photography will discuss these issues in conjunction with the venue’s “The Errant Eye” exhibition, along with the eighth annual “Self-Portraits” show in the Encore Gallery at the Taos Community Auditorium (by way of the Taos Center for the Arts). This portrait panel discussion is planned today (July 6), 7 p.m., in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood, 238 Ledoux St.
The panel will be Kathleen Brennan, Anna Magruder, Paul O’Connor, Jack Smith and Sarah Stolar. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Richard Tobin, the Harwood’s executive director.
Questions the panelists plan to address include:
• Portrait and place. How does environment affect artist and sitter?
• The portrait’s dilemma – artist vs. sitter, creativity vs. convention.
• When is a pot a portrait? What constitutes a portrait?
• Self-portrait dualism – detachment or delusion?
• Selfie, self and other. Is the selfie the ultimate affirmation of the portrait or its negation?
And, according to a press release, “all willing audience members are challenged to create a portrait(s) on the night of the panel. Each willing member of audience will given a clipboard with two pieces of white paper 8 1/2-by-11 inches and a sharp No. 2 pencil. Feel free to bring own sketch paper of same size and pencil, charcoal etc. For the fun of it images may be submitted to panel for jurying. Winning portraits will be published in Harwood Newsletter and TCA newsletter.”
In addition to the topics to be discussed, we were interested in asking one of our own. Here are some emailed responses to: “When creating a portrait, is it more important to capture a faithful representation (or essence) of the subject or to render your own artistic interpretation?”
Photographer O’Connor (author of “Taos Portraits: Photos by Paul O’Connor”) writes, “When making a portrait, I try to capture something essential I’ve seen in my subject. That ‘something,’ which is the reason I asked to do a portrait in the first place, is by definition something original, spontaneous, and natural. If I had a camera in my eyes I’d have some amazing portraits to show you, but alas I need a camera and that changes everything. So, my challenge is to go through the deliberate process of asking if I could do a portrait of someone, set a time and place, bring my camera and then try to bring out that one facet that attracted me.
“Of course, with all this planning it changes to dynamic, some are more or less comfortable in front of a lens, and I think most of us have a way of being ‘photographed’ so that when we look at the image on [someone’s] iPhone or screen we look at ourselves and say yes or no as to what we think of that image. That’s not what I’m looking for! I’m really looking for that image that does not feel like it was taken with a camera, like maybe nobody was around, or a trusted friend, or perhaps someone you want to engage with, anything but those ‘loud’ photos — that’s what I’ve come to call them — the ones where you can almost hear the photographer giving instructions and directing people into poses or situations that you know full well the subject would never get into on their own, click, and there they are, forever in an unnatural state. I have found ways of interacting and observing my subject that brings them to a place where I feel I’m able to capture something authentic: One critical aspect of someone’s character, a facet of their essence. In short I try not to include myself in the portrait!”
Artist Stolar, whose work appeared in the just-concluded Studio 238 exhibition titled “Self.i.e,” writes, “It depends on the conceptual nature of the work. The ‘Self.i.e.’ series shown in the Studio 238 gallery at the Harwood are portraits about specific women. For these paintings it is imperative that I not only captured their likeness, but also communicate a psychological quality distinct to the subject. We have a discussion about how they want to be depicted, considering they will be immortalized in a large-scale work of art, and the paintings are titled with their full names. That series is directly about those women and I want the audience to know who they are as individuals. I also work with narrative, like the painting Guard Dogs in the Errant Eye exhibition. In these works I am trying to capture the likeness of my subjects, however the representational aspects are looser and they are merged with symbolic imagery and abstract mark-making. I am not as concerned with the audience knowing exactly who is being depicted because the subjects are part of a larger story that is intended to be more universal. That being said, with all of my work I only choose models I know and who inspire me on some level, so there is always some part of who they are ingrained in the work.”
Taos expressionist portraitist Smith writes, “Faithful representation and interpretation are mutually important and inherently subjective from my perspective. Portraits differ from most other genres of painting by inviting another being into the creative process and though we all possess arguably the same essential nature, our individual stories, our personal mythologies are vastly unique.
“My task as a portraitist is to record and interpret that story as honestly, concisely and urgently as I can. Only through the lens of my own personal, accumulated life however can I see and imagine yours, and using the tools I was given paint my version of your story, what you choose to share of it and how I read it. It is, or should be, very personal for both the subject and and the painter, an inviolable dance we do for a brief moment in time. Interpretation arises naturally and is an unfolding mystery that goes far beyond the mere visage. I really have no idea how a successful portrait assembles itself but often enough they seem to. Of all the subjects in the relative world, humans still remain the most fascinating for me.”
Brennan, fine art photographer and co-director of the documentary “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” writes, “The short answer is, ‘It depends.’ Portraits are about capturing a moment in time. A memory of a person, an event, a concept. Collaboration and communication is essential. If I have a concept in mind, I need for my subject to participate with me in order for success. If I am approaching a portrait as art, I tend to be the driver in concept and creating my artistic interpretation. If someone has the need for a portrait, say for business or family it is about how they would like to see themselves represented. It is then my job to draw that out and capture it.
“They always seem to know if I have captured them faithfully in the moment. In the panel discussion at the Harwood next week, we’ll be talking about Portrait as Art Form. When I approach a portrait in that regard, it is about my artistic interpretation and goes beyond who that person is; they themselves become the icon for the story of a bigger picture. When I photographed Kat Duff during her breast cancer, it was about documenting the process for us, but it turned out to being about much more than her, she represented women who go through this process with wounds and tubes and drains and emotion of loss. And also about the ones who care for them. The series was about cancer and seeing the reality of the process and also about the resiliency of the human spirit. Portraits are a tool to learn and share about ourselves and the world we live in.”
For portraitist Magruder, “rendering a portrait with my own artistic interpretation is very important. However the purpose of the piece is always taken into consideration. If the portrait has been commissioned, the goal is typically to portray the person’s face and features realistically. Depending on the client’s needs, I will use the background, clothing and sometimes even the hair to explore my own artistic interpretation, so a lot of myself/my imagination does end up in the portrait. The final commissioned portrait may include some surreal elements or an imaginative background to create a mood or story, while also being true to the person’s likeness.”
Admission is free to attend the panel discussion. For more information on the Harwood Museum and its programs, call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org.