What is Portrait (Part 1)

“I think a portrait is a representation of an individual, usually an individual human being by another individual and it’s a created object that acts as a kind of remembrance of that person.”

“…It’s like being in love you know…”

The Pose

The Mother in this play has arrived, at the invitation of the Girlfriend, to sit for a portrait — to spend some portion of time being seen, recorded, examined. What is the Mother expecting of the resulting photograph? Is she hoping to appear beautiful? Wise? Mysterious? Powerful? Vindicated? We know she studied art history in college, and she comes back over and over to the value of beauty in art. In this way, she seems to be representative of an earlier generation of art connoisseurs deeply connected to classic ideals of taste and propriety — she is at odds, perhaps, with her son’s cohort of artists who draw influence from photographers who explored grittier, messier subject matter. As she says to the Girlfriend:

“You all like things — you like things to be.
Ugly even.”

So who does the Mother envision herself to be, in this portrait? She emphasizes her desire for prettiness (in art) as the portrait session starts. What is this negotiation about?

One way to think about this moment is by considering what the Mother thinks of as classically beautiful or powerful portraiture — what will she be measuring herself against? These ideas might shape the physical score of the Mother as she performs the act of posing, of being seen and recorded.

I’ve been thinking about Edwardian era painted portraits of strong and intriguing women, as well as the way in which contemporary photographers like Annie Leibovitz have innovated portraiture, using unexpected physical gestures or settings to reveal the inner truth of a subject. It feels like the Mother  might admire Leibovitz-ian work, but in her heart wants to be seen through a more idealized, romantic lens. Some examples of each are below.

I’ll also note how prescribed the poses seem — the angle of hips and knees to the shoulders/neck; the direction of the eyes versus the feet; the manufactured line of the body to convey personality, status, emotion. So many portraits recapitulate the same general idea: the subject angled diagonally across the frame. It’s rare to see women — unless they’re of extremely high status — portrayed full front, the gaze directly forward towards the viewer.  How does the Mother play with these conventions, consciously or not, as she explores her own relationship to the camera’s eye?

{Click images to enlarge and view captions.}