On the Face of It

Apr 19 2013

Our Curator of Visual Art, Liz Waring on creating our new display at the Graves Gallery, On the Face of It: Photographic Portraits for Sheffield's Collection

‘…there is something dramatic about the job of permanently recording the features of a human being. It is the theatre brought to everyday life, the ordinary routine of existence is broken, and the tension is heightened.’ Photobiography by Cecil Beaton

In the twenty-first century we are constantly being bombarded by photographs. On Twitter and Facebook we can experience events almost instantly as their stories unfold. In tabloids and magazines we can watch celebrities live out their lives in front of the lens. So is there still a place for the photographic portrait, a staged and perhaps less ‘real’ moment in a person’s life? I believe so.

These images may not be ‘caught in the moment’ reality, but they can perhaps tell us more about the sitter and how they wanted to be perceived - as well as more about the photographer and what they were trying to achieve. Some wished to be associated with their professions; as a sculptor, as an actress - while others were captured at home drinking tea, with no reference to their work at all. The skill of the photographer cannot be overemphasised here, each with their own technique and way of perfecting that iconic photographic image.

Cecil Beaton’s work is the total opposite to the candid tabloid shot. Instead of capturing a spontaneous moment in a person’s life, he creates a carefully lit stage set which instead complements the sitter’s personality, revealing more about them than a quick snap could capture.

Ida Kar on the other hand gives us clues about the subject’s life, often surrounding them with the tools of their trade or their work, or even something specific to that person, such as Stanley Spencer’s umbrella - which he apparently took with him everywhere. Her sittings were quick, often only half an hour compared to the full day Beaton could spend. Her photography was art and she was quite rightly described as ‘An artist with a camera’. She was also instrumental in getting photography recognised as an art form, at a time when it was still considered documentary.

Jane Bown used a more photojournalistic technique in her portraits, using an old camera and the available light around her. Her photographs are consequently more straightforward and naturally posed. Like Bown, Brassaï also used natural light, and often took his photos at night. He developed a technique for taking photographs in the most difficult places with hardly any light, resulting in dramatic, beautiful shots.

All the photographs in this display are black and white, and are all works of art in themselves. Each has its own beauty - in composition, pose and light. There is something about photographs, some magic quality that I can’t quite put my finger on…

‘… there are some textures, some visual impressions, some aesthetic moods, that no other means of representation yet discovered can render with such delicacy, such accuracy or such dramatic distinction.’
Cecil Beaton

 On the Face of It: Photographic Portraits from Sheffield's Collection continues at the Graves Gallery until 30 Novemeber 2013. 



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