Monday, November 14, 2011

Beyond rapture

When I first encountered Noel Manalili's Rapture project a few days ago (via Conscientious), it seemed vaguely familiar. Why did the name ring a bell? A few minutes of internet digging turned up the suspect, a portfolio of Frank Yamrus portraits I'd seen at Blue Sky in the late 90s also called Rapture.

The projects share more than just a name. The portraits themselves are similar. Here's an example, Manalili (cropped for comparison) on the left, Yamrus on the right.

The person on the left is singing a song to himself. The person on the right is masturbating, on the verge of physical rapture. I made a game for myself out of matching up the projects. Below are some more pairings.

One take-home lesson is that there are multiple avenues to rapture. Personally I know which method above I prefer. I'll take orgasm over singing any day. No brainer. But to each his own.

Of course there are other ways to achieve rapture. Through childbirth, for example.

Washington, DC, 1990, Eugene Richards

Or revival.

from Come Sunday, 1996, Thomas Roma

Or death.

Peter Hujar on his death bed, 1987, David Wojnarowicz

These expressions all share a certain quality but I think it's an open question whether they say something deeper about the person photographed or if they're just fleeting facial gestures. To me they seem comparable to any ephemeral orgasm face, of which the web has no shortage.

The photos above were found on a site subtitled facettes de la petite mort. The similarity to death and other raptures is inescapable. They're quite expressive but not particularly revelatory. In fact I don't think any photo going back to the beginning of this post describes very well the inner life of the person depicted. What they do instead is tell what a certain person is feeling at a particular moment.

Which is fine. I think this is the most we can demand of any portrait. IMO the idea that any single image can describe some universal truth about a person is a fallacy. Maybe 100 or 200 portraits can do that, or a 10 second snippet of film footage. But I think it's very hard if not impossible for a single photo to do that. And after all, that's photography's greatest asset. The inherent limits of the medium —information bound to what's in the frame at a given moment— invite wondrous ambiguities. To look at a photo and not know if the subject is singing or coming, that's a beautiful thing.

Die Boxer, Paul Roderstein, Hein Hesse', Germany, 1928
August Sander

For me this touches on the nature of portraiture and smiling (Also discussed at length here and here). Many portraitists direct their subjects not to smile because they fear the smile will hide the person, just as the rapture in the photos above might be seen to interfere with deeper revelation.

But rapture seems to me more honest. It might hide the person's identity but at least it's a real expression of what they're feeling, which most of the time a smile isn't. Instead of saying "Cheese" maybe people having their portraits done should dream of other things. Childbirth, revival, death, a partner's face. Boxers might dream of past knockouts. A smile might be hard to supress at that point.


Jakob Thomsen said...

May I also suggest Thomas Wrede's "Magic Feelings"-series taken with a zoom lens at roller coaster rides? -

Christian said...

You might choose orgasm based on experience, Blake, but based on the photos the singers look happier. Many of those orgasm expressions look pretty unhappy and uncomfortable. If I were an alien anthropologist studying these, I would think singing would be the more pleasant experience.

Blake Andrews said...

Christian, I wish more politicians thought like you.

Zisis Kardianos said...

Blake, even though I agree with most of your comments, I'm not sure about this notion
"What they do instead is tell what a certain person is feeling at a particular moment."
I think photography cannot do even that and as a quick and easy example (we can find countless) let's look at the "Magic Feelings" portraits.
Let's take these photographs out of their known context and lets try to forget that these are people riding on a roller coaster.
Would we be certain what emotions reveal the face of the woman in the 5th photo for instance?
It can be fear, anger, repulsion, even rapture or anything in between.
I think ambiguity is and should be the driving force of any good portrait even of all photography.
The feelings that we see in others are only projections of our own feelings and state of mind.
The viewer should have absolute liberty to charge the photo their own content.
That's why I believe that any information outside the picture itself, outside the thing itself, is not only frill but undermine the power and magic of the work.
There are obvious exceptions as is the news pictures etc but in a purely photographic discourse, explenatory texts, captions and statements are not needed.

Zisis Kardianos said...

Oh, and here's the link I referred to above...