Indexical Issues


 Putting Things into Perspective

This section includes some of the indexical issues surrounding Portraiture, Genres and the issues relating to photography and its relationship to reality.

Like many people, I like to people watch and indeed one of the key elements of portraiture photography of which interest me and perhaps what triggers me to want to take a strangers portrait boils down to a fascination I have with people. Some writers believe that all photography is voyeuristic and exploitative by nature. Some photographic portraiture feels voyeuristic because we get the impression that the sitters would not have wanted to be portrayed in the way they have been. For an example, Diane Arbus’s and Richard Avedon’s images feel invasive and unkind. Train Your Gaze – The Process of Portraiture Photography

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Estate of Diane Arbus

Most of us would associate Voyeurism with sexuality, however, According to Roswell Angier, Author of Train Your Gaze, Voyeurism is not necessarily about sexuality per se. “It is more so about a person point of view, based on a longing to process that which one knows one cannot (and Ultimately does not want to) have”. The fundamental condition of the voyeurism scenario is distance, an essential separation between seer and seen. Despite this distance, which Angier states is by definition unbridgeable, despite the unrequitable nature of the desire that drives it, the voyeur’s gaze is a privileged one. He/She usually positions himself/herself in a concealed and protected location, any place where his/her gaze cannot be reciprocated. He/She is the “invisible guest”.

One could write a thesis on the subject of Voyeurism and Photography, it goes beyond the act of looking and has strong connections to pornography, as distinct from erotica.


Portraiture, like many genres, overlap, so I would consider street portraiture to be a fusion between documentary and portraiture. Yet interestingly audiences recognize genres without any training or effort. Lucy Souter, Author of Why Art Photography? explains that as we flip channels on the television it only takes a few seconds to identify the cliches of a soap opera, or a game show. Souter goes on to explain that in a culture obsessed with novelty, we might think that old-fashioned genres would have fallen to the wayside, to be replaced by new forms. In fact, artists have returned to familiar genres again and again, with the intentions to satisfy the expectations of viewers and also to smash them. Interestingly, Genres are also used as useful ways of entering into dialogue with history: the artist does not make them up but borrows them from the prevailing culture and from the history of their art form. Combining two or more genres into a hybrid form is an immediate way to introduce complexity into a work writes Souter, inviting the viewer to connect the work to other ideas in the culture.

A portrait is a site of identification and projection, inviting us to relate ourselves to the person or people in the image. We know that portraiture captures a  person in just one of their possible states, and we judge artists in part by their ability to select a representative face for the individual. (this is something of which I am conscious of when I take a strangers portrait) Art historian Richard describes portraits as purposeful constructions that present a particular proposition about a person, aiming to elicit a  psychological response from the viewer.

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Richard Avedon – Debbie McClendon, Carney, Thermopolis, Wyoming, July 29. 1981


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