45 seconds…

In ‘A Short History of Photography’ Walter Benjamin comments as follows on the effect of the long time exposures needed for early photographic portraits:

‘The procedure itself taught the models to live inside rather than outside the moment. During the long duration of these shots they grew as it were into the picture and in this way presented an extreme opposite to the figures on a snapshot.’

I took this as my inspiration for ‘45 Seconds…’. It is an investigation into how a portrait subject responds when asked to hold a pose for a long period and forms part of my broader inquiry into strategies portrait photographers use for ‘disarming the pose’ of their subjects.

I asked each of my subjects to assume a pose and to hold this for 45 seconds. I made one photograph at the start and one at the end of this time period. 45 seconds is a typical time exposure for an early photograph made with the Calotype process. Each portrait has exactly the same formal structure – a frontal headshot with even lighting. I placed emphasis on the subject’s eyes and mouth – the features we use the most for communication. I used a 5×4 view camera and black and white film to emphasise the link to early photography and a headrest similar to the ones used in the 1800s.

My subjects found the process quite stressful. Their relaxed expressions at the start become much more strained after 45 seconds. In most cases their eyes seem to glaze over as they have become fully absorbed in the process of maintaining their pose.

Whilst Benjamin’s ideas were my starting point, I have also been influenced by contemporary artist/photographers Bettina von Zwehl and Roni Horn. Throughout her work, von Zwehl has ‘developed strategies and rituals to distract the sitters from posing, none of which are revealed to the viewer immediately.’ (von Zwehl 2007, pp71). Roni Horn has often used multiple portraits of the same subject in her work. In You are the Weather for example she presents 100 portraits of the same young woman submerged up to her neck in an Icelandic hot spring. We are invited to link her expression to changes in the weather. (Horn, 1997).

The portraits in ’45 Seconds…’ will be presented as large prints in diptych pairs with the aim of grabbing the viewer’s attention. The large scale will also to allow the viewer to scrutinise the surface of the faces in detail. I want to engage an instant reaction of ‘why am I looking at two identical portraits?’. On closer inspection the viewer should see that this is not the case and this realisation may well cause him/her to think about their process of looking at photographic portraits. The work shows how subtle changes of expression can significantly alter the perception of a portrait subject, raising questions about what, if anything, surface appearances can reveal about identity.  The diptychs also mark the passage of time. This coupled with the relatively old age of the subjects may prompt viewers to reflect on mortality.

Keith Greenough

April 2013

Horn R. (1997) You Are the Weather. Zurich: Scalo

von Zwehl B. (2007) Bettina von Zwehl Gottingen: Photoworks/Steidl

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45 Seconds...  © Keith Greenough 2013

45 Seconds…
© Keith Greenough 2013

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