Introduction by William Boyd
Photography has been called the ‘artless art’ — the somewhat facile implication behind the adjective being that anyone with a camera is capable, by hazard, of producing a great or striking photograph. A combination of chance, circumstance, the camera and its capacities (increasingly sophisticated in this digital age) coheres in the production of an image that moves or amuses, disturbs or enchants — that provides, in short, that frisson that is the aesthetic experience.
Painting and photography have had a long and contentious connection (in the minds of photographers, anyway) despite the fact that photography is primarily a mechanical process. The early photographers strove to reproduce the qualities of fine art in their images: the more a photograph looked like a mezzo-tint or an etching, or a water colour or oil painting, the better. Since the revolution of what has been termed ‘vernacular’ photography in the 1950s and 60s — where the ‘snapshot’ or ‘stop-time’ aspect of the photographic image came to predominate — so-called ‘pictorial’ photography has come to seem somewhat antiquated or retrospective. Yet there is one category of photograph that has managed to excel in its own terms despite the fact that its painterly or pictorial cousin has been in existence for centuries — namely the posed photographic portrait. A photographer like Nadar (1820 -1910) was doing essentially the same job as Holbein at the court of Henry VIII. Nadar’s photographs of the Parisian beau-monde at the end of the 19th century function in the same manner as John Singer Sargent’s swagger-portraits of London’s social elite.
Turning to Paul Joyce’s superb selection of portraits with this comparison in mind one sees how ‘painterly’ his eye is. These are formal portraits (however relaxed the sitter). There is nothing candid or voyeuristic about these images. The setting is chosen, the pose is decided on, the sitter is lit or placed carefully in the available light, and the nature and scale of the portrait itself (close-up, head and shoulders or full-length) is selected. In other words all the ‘previsualisations of traditional art photography’ — to use Janet Malcolm’s phrase — come into play. Similarly the subject is very aware of the ongoing process (I speak as someone who has been formally photographed thousands of times). You are comfortable or — more likely — very uncomfortable. You worry about your expression, how you look, your weight, your hair, which is your best side, and so on. The whole situation is artificial in the extreme, the very opposite of a snapshot. And yet of course it is a snapshot: that is how the sitter looked on a given split-second on a day in a month in a year of his or her life.
And here, I think, the posed photograph begins to separate itself from the painted portrait and great photographic portraits begin to display their own integrity and autonomy. Looking at Paul Joyce’s wonderful photographs of, for example, Dirk Bogarde, David Hockney, Johnny Cash and Ken Russell you can, I believe, start to assess what it is about the photographic portrait that makes it the most challenging task that photographers can impose upon themselves, that sets it apart from the millions upon millions of photographic images that proliferate in the world today. Perhaps the portrait is the ultimate test of a photographer’s particular gift or talent. In assessing it three factors, it seems to me, come to bear on deciding whether a photographic portrait succeeds and is worthy of our acclaim.
The first factor — and this may seem the most banal observation — is that, by and large, the great photographic portraits are in black and white. And yet the world is not monochrome. It could be argued that ‘black and white’ is photography’s great advantage over painting. Its images are immediately set apart — are, in a fundamental sense, unreal and therefore strange and worthy of our notice. You can paint in black and white — ‘en grisaille’ as it’s termed — but, with a very few exceptions (Picasso, for example) it seems quaint, a parlour trick. In photography it is almost its defining element and a proper understanding of the workings of monochrome — the use of chiaroscuro or the absence of shadow — is vital. Colour photography loses this pre-eminent asset of the medium. Only in reportage photography does colour achieve equal status with the fundamental impact of black and white.
The second factor is a combination of tradition and the technicalities of the medium itself. There is in all great portraits a tension between the painterly subtext (a well-known or eminent person posing for a portrait) and the neutral, all-seeing, scrutinizing eye of the camera lens. The camera records everything — unless you retouch — every nodule and wrinkle, shaving cut and fleck of dandruff, frayed collar and loose button, unbrushed hair and bitten fingernail. Nothing is blurred or sketchy — the minutiae of visual detail is integral to the photographic portrait in a way that it isn’t in a painting. To a significant degree, if only in terms of focus and texture, the photographed portrait can give us more.
The third factor is the knowledge the viewer brings to the image and the way the photographer exploits this knowledge. Looking at a portrait of Johnny Cash is a different experience from looking at a portrait of Joe Bloggs. Think of the difference of response to a portrait of a Walker Evans’ nameless sharecropper and Karsh’s famous portrait of Winston Churchill. Very often in great portraits the photographer is complicit with the viewer. There is a shared understanding that can be manifest very subtle way (a delicate irony) or overtly. Annie Liebowitz’s portraits, for example, extravagantly and hilariously exploit this shared knowledge. Paul Joyce is far more shrewd and understated. His portrait of Dirk Bogarde is a case in point. I would suggest that the polished sheen of Bogarde’s reflected face on the table-top in front of him is a perfect metaphor of this most guarded of men. All three of these categories are crucial to the making of a fine portrait but it’s in this final feature that the individuality of the photographer is revealed. This manipulation of shared knowledge is very hard to do — it is the opposite of artless — and the great photographic portraits all exhibit this kind of artistry. Paul Joyce, as we can see from this selection of his work, is a master at it.