Photography elicits an illusion of pure legibility: that an image has an inherent power to reveal something deep and definitive about a person, that it can convey essence or uncover truths about an individual’s larger dimensional self.
In reality, a photograph can only offer a constellation of information – a set of visual particulars that give the appearance of something discernible and knowable that is actually extremely elusive. As observed by the late photographer, writer and filmmaker Allan Sekula, “The only objective truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something…was somewhere and took a picture.”
Dutch photographers Trine Søndergaard and Jan Banning work from opposing sides of this question in concurrent exhibitions at Hagedorn Gallery (through Jan. 4). Banning’s “Down and Out in the South” looks to transcend labels and stereotypes of homelessness through democratized portraiture, hoping to achieve greater authenticity of representation. Søndergaard’s ghostly “Monochrome Portraits” abandon notions of authenticity altogether.
Banning’s exhibition features 12 larger-than-life photographs – mostly monumental head shots – of homeless men and women he encountered in South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi. Most sitters are posed frontally – like a mug shot – and they stare, sometimes confrontationally, at the camera (and thus, the viewer), as if to lessen the divide between the subjects and the audience.
Each image conveys an overwhelming visual intimacy, magnifying the most infinitesimal of each person’s unique facial features: a clogged pore, a peeling lip, a perspiring brow. Some are quite stunning. The eponymous Knitzer’s spellbound gaze is at once inward and transfixed on some unknown universe. Phil’s erratic energy is as arresting as it is unsettling.
While Banning has succeeded in illuminating the individuality of his subjects, his formal decisions occasionally undermine his goal and end up emphasizing the context he seeks to eliminate.
Intentionally photographing the homeless as he would anyone else, Banning shot them in a photography studio, purposefully removing them from visible contextual markers of homelessness, which not only make narrow the definition of homelessness, but have the tendency to alienate the general public as well.
However, such decisions of decontextualizing are tricky, for recasting in a more palatable light—as is the case here—can imply hierarchical distinction and value judgment. While hoping to neutralize the context in which these individuals are encountered, the aesthetic decision to photograph them frontally, under bright lights and against the sterility of a grey backdrop actually feels closer to objectification than simply photographing them in the context of their own domain would.
Consider the work of photographer Robert Bergman, for example, whose intimate and often difficult portraits of everyday people – captured on the street as Bergman encountered them – convey penetrating vulnerability in a way that transcends context altogether. For Bergman, there was no need to remove them from their original context in order to humanize them. Unlike Banning, Bergman isn’t trying to change our minds as much as he wants to deepen our understanding by depicting things as they actually are in the world.
Other decisions register as problematic. Banning’s choice of title, for example, “Down and Out in the South,” seems inescapably damning, and doesn’t allow for a broader narrative scope for these individuals. Banning conducted interviews with his subjects (posted on his website), and while useful in painting a fuller portrait, every interview began with the same question: “How did you become homeless?” If Banning’s goal is to get beyond their socially determined “otherness,” why begin by emphasizing the one fact that labels them?
For any photographer documenting the marginal, the cast-out or the generally underprivileged, the responsibility of representation is an especially fraught one. No easy task, Banning’s goal of illuminating the otherwise invisible is noteworthy and laudable.
In contrast to Banning’s goal of “making visible” those he photographs, Trine Søndergaard’s is obscurity and uncertainty. Her solemn “Monochrome Portraits” evoke a series of moods rather than any individual personality. Indeed, the works register as arising from the photographer’s own experience rather than her putative subjects. The 16 unnamed portraits burrow into a cave of heavy introspection.
The images suggest color-field painting. Originally shot in black and white film, each portrait was printed through a range of unique colored filters –a palette of rich, velvety dark blues, greys and burgundies. The result is a series eerily awash in lustrously melancholic tones.
“I have been investigating portraiture in my work for some time: interrogating what constitutes an image and confronting the myth that the portrait can reveal personality – or capture ‘the soul’” says Søndergaard in a video interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. “I am drawn towards something lonely, quiet and empty in order to take the pictures to an absolute zero visually.”
The artist eschews direct contact with the sitters’ gaze; in some cases, they have their backs to the camera. As a result, the individuals’ startling absence in these lonely portraits is as palpable as their presence. The portraits are essentially empty vessels, containers for the viewer’s private thoughts.
Søndergaard’s other work is similarly introspective, albeit through metaphor. The pieces in a series appropriately titled “Interiors” convey an overwhelming weight of presence despite being photographs of empty rooms.
As she says, “.. my photography is an investigation of something outside myself, but it’s also always been a lot about myself—and about the “me” in it.”