Hallowed is the Portrait

“Marietta, Reader of Books” (2010). From the series Les Lieux de Mémoire: Portraiture from the South Caucasus.

In 2009 I left the States for a year to shoot a collection of large-scale exhibition portraits in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Though I also taught cinematography and photography to university students, and even did some shooting for local directors, the bulk of my project focused on this photographic work. Frustrated by the journalistic obsession with war, poverty and decaying infrastructure that has dominated the region’s coverage for decades, I wanted to explore the post-Soviet condition in the Caucasus through a patient, non-narrative study of human form (you can learn more on the project’s website, and from the blog I kept during production).

I was surprised how many of my colleagues thought I was changing careers. On the eve of my departure, it seemed as though I was continuously having to explain how this project was not a hiatus from my work as a cinematographer, but rather an important part of it. To me the project was not unlike a painter going to Europe to study Goya’s sketches, or a novelist studying Shakespeare’s plays. It was about strengthening a deep, fundamental understanding of the photographic medium. It was about developing the core around which the craft is built.

Portraiture is a foundation of visual art much in the same way that Shakespeare, Greek myth, and religious texts form the bedrock of all modern-day storytelling. The portrait genre has endured millennia of artistic evolution because it addresses our existential questions about how, and why, we interact with the world around us. We are fascinated by portraiture not simply because we are attracted to the human form, but because studying it allows us, subconsciously, to search for clues in others that we believe might help with our deepest questions about life.

The role of portraiture in cinema, where it manifests most often as close-ups, is no less significant. It is a key cinematic bridge between story and audience, the humanizing vehicle that enables us to relate to the narrative’s events, and the single biggest factor distinguishing cinema from the theater. It is thanks to portraiture that we viewers are able to relate to the suffering, joy, love, and anger on the screen, and rare is the wide shot capable of delivering so much.

When I look today at the portraits I shot in the Caucasus I am sometimes struck by how formally unsensational they seem next to contemporary commercial photography and photojournalism. But this was their design. The goal was to create a series of large-scale images, printed one meter in width, to be studied in the kind of meditative environment that only a gallery can provide. To me the connection between portraiture and cinematography seems so basic, so essential to the motion picture medium. Whether or not Hollywood will support this ambition in a DP is a question I find myself asking with increasing frequency.

The view from here: hazy, with intermittent visibility.

You can read the blog I kept during my time overseas here.