Long Exposure Portraits Update

Posted on November 7, 2012


This project is proving the most elusive I have undertaken so far. I have moved my ideas around quite a bit as I have tried things and they have not worked as well as I would have liked. This post sets out my latest thinking as a result of work I have recently undertaken.

I have now made four portraits in following my idea of using a pinhole camera to produce double portraits. The idea is that I would produce a series of images where the combination of gazes I adopt will vary. For example in one I might be looking directly at the viewer in both of the images of me in the frame. The next I might be looking away in one image of me and looking at the viewer in the second. And so on. I had mapped out ten scenarios which I was going to shoot. Here are the portraits so far:

Alter Egos Pinhole Portraits

These portraits are interesting but I don’t think the achieve what I was aiming to do. I had to pinch myself and look back at my objectives. The aim of the work is to try to test the hypothesis that long exposures result in portraits which are ‘expressively cohesive’, which is the term used by Walter Benjamin in A Short History of Photography . Benjamin attributed this effect to the difficulty of  self consciously posing during a long exposure. (Additionally, he seems to suggest that in the early days of the photography, portraits have this quality because the social conventions for photographic portraiture had not yet formed). By ‘expressively coherent’ I believe that he means that portraits made with long exposures would appear natural, with the subject appearing as others might normally expect to see them. This contrasts with snapshot photography  where a range of different representations (expressions) of a given subject can be captured. As such the photographer/subject are able to manage (manipulate) how the subject is presented to the world.

The problems with the Pinhole Portraits is that they are too expressive by design which confounds the very analysis I am trying to undertake. The soft focus of the pinhole lens gives the portraits an overtly psychological feel and the variations to the compositions raise questions I am not seeking to explore (to a great extent the compositions are arbitrary). It is also difficult to compare how my expression changes (or not) from one portrait to the next. So I think I need to change again.

I have been researching the work of two photographers which are relevant to my work. The first is Bettina Von Zwehl who has experimented with different kinds of interventions with the subject. She has made several series including for example making a series of diptych portraits, with one image taken when the subject is breathing in and the second when breathing out. Von Zwehl’s approach is quite deadpan which I feel suits the experimental nature of the work. The second photographer is Eileen Perrier who has made several portrait series using large format cameras. Perrier has used a headstand to assist portrait subjects to remain in the same position during the exposures.  I have been in email correspondence with Eileen trying to find out where she got the headstand. She was most helpful and I am now in making my own to use in this project. I have also agreed to be a subject in her next portraits series! I plan to post more comprehensive reviews of both Von Zwehl and Perrier shortly.

The upshot of this thinking is that I now plan to examine the ‘expressive cohesion’ of long exposure portraits by making a series of diptych portraits using my Rotary colleagues as subjects. For both portraits in each diptych the subject will be in the same position and will have the same nature/direction of gaze. Each portrait however will be made  with a separate long duration exposure. I aim to make these portraits in a plain style. The nature/direction of the gazes will be based on those in the David Octavius Hill portraits that I have already identified  here . I will avoid overt theatricality to encourage the viewer to focus on the gazes. Indeed this is the aim. I want viewers to spend time with these portraits looking for similarities and differences in the expressions of the subjects. Here is an example using myself as the subject. Each was a 30 second exposure. I have made a mental note to ask my subjects to wear a dark plain top…the ‘Gap’ on my sweatshirt jars a little.

Diptych One – 3/4 view looking away