Stage 3: portraiture through the moving image; Part 1: Video portraiture

February 26, 2011

“Put simply, the words ‘portrait’, ‘portraiture’ and ‘portrayal’ refer to the activities of artists and writers who make works to describe the individual human subject. The appeal of this type of work is that the successful portrait is both a revelation of the unique characteristics and qualities of the person as well as a reflection of general humanity.” (Judd, 2011, 426)

Craig Judd made the above statement in the context of a discussion of Dani Marti’s video portrait of Peter Fay. Marti is but one of a number of artists who use film as their medium to describe and explore the human condition. In his hands the filmed interview is placed in intimate situations to create a narrative that discloses and describes part of the subject. A related artist who combines interview and film as portraiture is David Rosetzky. Some of his earlier video works in the late 90’s feature personnel confessions from friends, exploring the interaction of public and personnel in an individual’s psyche, within the context of ‘contemporary lifestyle culture’ (Palmer, 2011, 488). His 2008 video portrait of Cate Blanchette (commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery) is in a similar vein: choreographed, highly stylized, and involving the subject speaking as in an interview. An important thing to note about Rosetsky and Marti is that their video portraits both reference film and the TV confessional. The two examples cited both focus on exploring and describing an individual: the subject is interviewed, and their responses form a part of the portrait. As a statement it may sound self-evident that a length of footage reference film, but in the genre of video-portraits this is not necessarily the case. There is a second distinctly different approach: namely, one that references painting. Here, the focus is not on intense self revelation through a combination of visuals and the spoken word, rather the impression is that of a photograph given movement.

(Video Portraits by Timothy Ryan Poe)

(Video Portraits by Patrick Lawler)

From this type, many video portraits may be seen online (such as the two above), recording the faces of individuals who gaze often awkwardly back into the camera, trying to hold a smile for the duration of the clip. Video portraitists such as Joan Logue seem to have built a career out of this, often recording her subjects for ten to twenty minutes as they pose in silence. As stated on her website, she is a pioneer in this form of portraiture, having developed her practice from 1971 when a young African boy first stood in front of her camera and gazed into it. With regards to pioneering though, it must be noted that five years earlier, between 1964-1966, Andy Warhol made over 500 ‘film portraits’, also called ‘screen tests’. People who came into his factory were invited to stare into a camera for a number of minutes remaining as still as possible in order to test their ‘screen potential’. In this way, the film portraits of such people as Salvador Dali and Bob Dylan were created.


Warhol’s screen tests have indeed had their influence, with experimental film makers such as Jeff Scher (who I will discuss later) citing them. Logue seems though to have started without knowledge of Warhol, and certainly continued with her video portraits for longer than the making of the ‘screen tests’. Used in such a prolific way, video portraiture seems to be a commercial development from the photograph or water colour portrait sketch of previous decades.

As a side note, the video clip devoted to describing an individual has in the last decade been highly commercialised in the form of the ‘video profile’. Here, the subject (or a narrator) may speak about themselves, their passions, desires, work, goals, and the narrative may be interspersed with images of
them in action – whether they be a past competitor from American idol or a successful chef. Examples are:
the one of Master chef Jake Gandolfo, Cat (a character from the slap), Maria Rodgers Bodyspace profile, or one of Michael Bublé.

Another artist who engages with this medium is Robert Wilson. His take, however, is more developed, with its poetic and distinctly theatrical overtones. Minimalistic and heavily referencing painting, his works push video towards creating the illusion of a still image, with the subtlest of movements in the subject suggesting otherwise. In the case of his 2004 portrait of Brad Pitt, Pitt is shown standing almost motionless, staring back at the camera against a blue lit wall. However, the still image is only an initial impression, as shortly it begins to rain, increasing the slightly ominous absurdity of Pitt in his white boxers, socks and gun. Accompanying this is a playful music track with Christopher Knowles repeating what begins like a children’s nursery rhyme: “Apples peaches pumpkin pie, ready or not, here I come, gee that used to be such fun”, but what turns into the story of a rejected lover, culminating in Pitt raising the gun, pointing it at the camera and firing. This, however, proves to be an anti-climax, with the gun revealing itself to be a water pistol. The sequence finishes with him slowly lowering and returning his arms to their starting position, enabling the film to become a smooth loop.

It may seem unusual to start speaking of video portraits in the context of an art practice that focusses on animation, but there appear to be distinct connections and shared concerns between animated portraits and their video counterparts. Enough to make a study of the latter informative in understanding the former, such as for considerations of sound track.
References:

Judd, Craig. ‘Bacon’s dog: Dani Marti’s portrait of Peter Fay’. Art & Australia, 48:3, Autumn 2011. 426-429

Palmer, Daniel. ‘The difficulty of being oneself: David Rosetzky’s moving image portraits’. Art & Australia, 48:3, Autumn 2011. 486-493.

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