The Portrait Photography as Stage Kunsthalle Wien 2009

Posted on March 9, 2013


I have been gathering together more thoughts on influences to my thinking on photographic portraiture. This has involved re-reading some of the books I’ve gathered along the way during the Advanced course. The Portrait Photography As Stage  is the book associated with an exhibition of the same name held at the Kunsthalle in Viena in 2009 (Kunsthalle Wien 2009). This exhibition brought together the work of 32 contemporary portrait photographers.

Alongside the work of the photographers the book presents a brief statement by each of the artists about their work. I have presented here quotations from three photographers which have resonance with my own thinking about photographic portraiture. The exhibition also included work by Rineke Dijkstra who I have discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Valerie Belin

‘I never approach the face as a mark of individuality. Unlike the kind of portrait that claims to reveal a person’s character, their inner life, I stay on the surface – at skin level, so to speak’

Belin has made several series of portraits showing head and shoulder views of her subjects. In one series her subjects were eerily human looking manikins. In a second series her subjects were models selected from modelling agencies. These human models have perfect skin and gaze blankly into the distance. The manikins and humans look very very similar. Her work seems to be raising questions about  ‘reality’  in contemporary visual culture, with its ‘perfect’ people in advertising and celebrity portraiture and ‘perfect’ avatars in video games. Do we know any more what is real and what is artificial? Some of her images can be seen here.

Luigi Gariglio

‘I want to focus on the stereotypical representation of different social groups or on specific situations. I do not think we all have to be passive producers for La societe du spectacle that Debord described in the 1960s, and I think there is still much to do in this critical direction.’

Amongst his work, Gariglio has produced a series of portraits of lap dancers. The women were photographed frontally showing only their head and shoulders. They are gazing directly at the viewer in a reversal of their normal role of objects of the male gaze. Gariglio photographed them without make up with plain lighting, once again reversing the ‘normal’ representation of these women. It was important to Gariglio that his subjects understood what he was trying to achieve and why. Gariglio’s Lap Dancer series can be seen here.

Thomas Ruff

‘I have assumed that a photographic portrait is not even possible, and that not even one hundred portraits of the same person could come close to portraying his or her personality.’

It is to draw attention to this contention that Ruff made two series of portraits of his student colleagues. The subjects are photographed as of they were ‘a bust of Beethoven’ – head on with a slight turn of the head and shoulders. Lighting is flat, the background neutral and the expressions of the subjects are in Ruff’s words ‘normal’. Ruff’s portraits have a similarity to passport photographs, and this reference draws attention to the role of the portrait in representing surface identity. His portraits can be seen here.

Why does the work of these photographers strike a chord with me. First I think it is because none of them are, as Gariglio says, passive producers for Debord’s La society du spectacle. Indeed their work stands in opposition to the general tenor of portraiture in contemporary visual culture. Second each of these photographers underpin their work with a strong conceptual base. They ask questions about gender, reality, authenticity and identity. And finally their work is produced to the highest photographic standards and as such stakes a claim to be taken seriously.


Kunsthalle Wien (2009) The Portrait Photography as Stage Nurnberg: Verlag fur Moderne Kunst Nurnberg