Worlds of Portraiture

By Tala Pattinson

Image my own


“Each of the portraits was a sealed-away world, visible from without, but impossible to enter” wrote Teju Cole in his 2011 novel Open City. After reading this line, I happened to look up from the page to the cork board on the wall beside my bed, where I was sat reading the book. A couple of weeks before I had pinned to this board a postcard-sized print of one of William Eggleston’s photographed portraits – you know the one: young man with mid-century quiffed hair, wearing a white shirt and grey apron, pushing a group of trolleys forwards before him, bathed in the deep orange light of a late afternoon in America – which stared down at me, contradicting Cole’s statement completely.

I pinned this particular shot up because of just how much it feels like you can fall in amongst it at any moment and be warmed by the setting sun yourself. Whether it’s something about the camera’s proximity to its subject – where the consequent feeling the viewer has of being stood right beside the young man is only enhanced by the presence of another shadow on the wall beside his, not belonging to anyone in the shot itself – the female figure in the background looking directly towards you out of the photograph, or simply the intensity of the warm light, I don’t know. But there is something about this image of Eggleston’s which feels so real to me, and not at all the “sealed-away world” that Cole describes.

But, I am conscious of the fact that I feel this way more often when looking at photographs than paintings. Somewhat old-fashioned as they may now be considered by some, paintings – and portraits specifically – constitute most of my favourite works of art. Put me in front of any of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergere’, or Modigliani’s female nudes, for example, and I’ll be happy. However, whilst I truly love these works, I do feel a certain distance from them. For me, though, this is part of their allure; painted subjects always manage to feel more mysterious and harder to pin down to me than photographed ones. Maybe this is because of the simple fact that photographs – though often edited or meticulously set-up – are a still, captured example of the way that we as humans see, so they are consequently far more realist and familiar in this sense than heavy oil brushstrokes or surreally distorted faces à la Picasso ever can be.

I have been thinking recently about what the invention of photography – which allowed people, places and things to be captured as the human eye sees them, with only increasing ease and availability as the technology developed – did to the mode of painted portraits. Arguably, photography could have made painted portraiture surplus to requirement, and maybe it would have done so if painting had continued on solely in the more realist tradition it had once been used to. However, one only has to consider the wealth of surrealist, impressionist, modernist works that the last centuries have offered us – with their heightened expressions, twisted forms and emotive use of colour – to see that painted portraiture can, and does, offer something that photography cannot. I’ve already mentioned Picasso, but take Francis Bacon, Marc Chagall, Eileen Agar, Maggi Hambling, Vanessa Bell, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse… the list goes on.

It seems to me that there are many worlds that portraiture can lead us into. The more recognisable world of photography – brought into increasingly sharp focus thanks to Apple’s latest ‘portrait mode’ – and the more abstracted world of painting. I am not here to argue that one is ‘better’ or more important than the other, both have their purpose and beauty. I would in fact say that it would be a lesser world of art to not be able to view them both, contradicting and complementing each other.


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