…continued from Structural Analysis (1)
Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:
Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so
I have chosen this portrait because I do love how a great male artist is naked, doing something relatively benign albeit fairly intimate, usually private, and yet he communicates a sense of ease, even though his laughter and expression suggest he wasn’t entirely in on the decision to have his photograph taken while in the bath. (I feel it only fair to say that Picasso allowed himself to be photographed in all sorts of unusual ways and an image by Robert Capa shows him holding an umbrella for his lover on the beach in a photo where the woman is very clearly shown as the dominant force – who knows how much of that is reality as there are also plenty of stories about Picasso being exactly like so many of his fellow males from the age in terms of dominance). The photographer who took the bath photo was David Douglas Duncan, someone who reportedly took over 10 000 photographs of Picasso during their 17 year friendship. (Life, 2009) I also chose it because I have taken several photographs of my children in the bath over the years, which continues a family tradition since my mother took several of my bother and me too. I suspect many parents photograph their children in the bath, or did, before chemists and other developers started reporting pictures of naked children in case of potential harm. Now that people tend not to have snaps developed I suspect pictures of children in the bath continue but snaps of adults in the bath are relatively rarer. We usually shut the bathroom door, don’t we?
This photograph is not like the Hunter one where an ‘informal’ but constructed image is made formal. This is a snap – but a great one due to subject and place, and entirely informal in every way. Even so it still references paintings and more formal spacial structures. The subject is to the left of the picture, he is framed by the pipes leading up to the ceiling behind him and the taps/shower pipe and edge of the bath. He is well lit and the shadow of his form can be seen behind him on the wall of the bath. There is space around and above him, without which he might seem cramped and perhaps even too close to us, or maybe even imprisoned by his framing. Instead there is an airiness, room to breath which together with the expression on his face gives the image a sense of easiness, joviality and deep friendship.
I am reminded of a friend of Picasso’s in Lee Miller’s famous portrait taken by David E. Schema in Hilter’s bath. Although Schema took it, the suggestion in various articles is that the idea to photograph this scene was hers. I find it a very disturbing image. Although she may have been wanting to display a defiant attitude towards Hitler by getting in his bath, the mingling of personal space and intimate activity is distressing. Her boots, which according to the Telegraph article (Parker 2014) (linked above), were covered in mud from Dachau where she had just been and photographed evidence of the atrocities that took place there. What interests me is that there is such a difference between the two images in their intention, even though the ‘forms’ are so very similar – resulting in totally opposite messages being communicated. Are these good examples of how content can be quite different within the same form, and how we are guided by a collection or chain of signifiers when receiving information? And comparing these images is part of my ongoing determination to comprehend zero, empty or free floating signifiers which were alluded to in the conversation I had with my tutor and Peter H following feedback from A2. Here are two images, each of which tell a very different story, and it makes me wonder how one can empty a signifier of meaning, as, I believe, it is thought many of the artists working with appropriation are attempting to do.
As I have stated several times in the past I am not a fan of traditional nudes, however, I don’t mind nakedness in the least. What I find offensive is, as Berger describes it, the uniform of nudity that women have been obliged to don in their appointed representations over the centuries, and still do. Men on the other hand have tended to be represented with medals, property, land, and other signs indicative of power, strength, dominance. Picasso above has been stripped of all of that. In the Lee Miller image there is a prime example of that kind of male power based imagery in a portrait of Hitler resting on the side of the bath; an example of the male-owned, nude representation of women in the form of a small statue, and an alternative to that in the form of Miller, who nevertheless looks away from the viewer; but mid wash just like Picasso. It’s an enormously difficult and complicated photograph. In the Duncan picture there is an intimacy, joy, relaxation, slight embarrassment, but a direct and relatively confident gaze back at the viewer. Although mid action, i.e. washing, he is engaged, he is part of a scene which breaks the fourth wall.
Compare this too to one of the first images I spoke about for this course, In the Bathroom by Pierre Bonnard, a painting that was made using photo-referencing. The influence of photography can be seen in the way in which the photograph captures a moment in time, just as Picasso and Miller have been captured, mid ablutions. The painting somehow seems prurient though. We the viewer are being invited to spy on this woman whose face is passive, meek, almost insipid, and with an indirect gaze.
The informal portrait of Picasso can be compared to the informal but constructed painting by Bonnard – but there is so much more life rather than the pretence of it. Not just because it is a photograph instead of a painting, but rather because Picasso is treated like an equal, a fellow human being whom one can have a joke with, as opposed to the women drying herself who is being observed, owned and spied on. Her pert breasts painted to look utterly ludicrous, not least because of the spacial dimensions which don’t remotely tally with her actual physical position, and this was done decades before plastic breasts appeared.
Finally – here is a photograph of my brother and me in the bath in the early 70s. It’s one of my favourite childhood photographs and reminds me of running around all day on the beach in Cape-town and not caring about all the things that infect our lives with so much worry today. I will need to think about the various signifiers in this image and compare them to the others I’ve mentioned, and perhaps other images of people in the bath, young and old. It might be a useful exercise in terms of semiotics to do a table. In the meantime, I am minded to think about the differences between how we respect certain boundaries in terms of children compared to adults, about the changing nature of those boundaries, about how those changes impact on us. I suspect the answers t the questions such an excercise might raise are many and complex. I like the picture of Picasso in his bath very much. He is made human and warm in it and it manages to convery something genuine about the relationship between Picasso and Duncan in the split second that it was taken.
Parker 2014, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10621799/Lee-Miller-the-woman-in-Hitlers-bathtub.html (accessed 12 July 2016)
- Picasso by David Douglas Duncan from Life, 2009, The Great Life Photographers, Thames and Hudson, London (obtained online from https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/178947785163968505/ accessed 12 July 2016)
- In the Bathroom 1907 Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 Lent by a private collector 2005 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02553 (accessed 12th July 2016)
- From personal archives taken by my mother, Evelyn Dean, c 1975