The Mind's Camera Portrait Project

Based on the requirements of expense for each word sent, messages in the age of the telegraph were quite brief. As the cost per message bit fell significantly with new personal communication media, messages generally began to grow longer. But it appears that we retrieve the staccato of the telegraph with the latest social networking services. First, because of the physical effort of typing out messages (a problem exacerbated with cell phones and PDAs); second, because of the sheer information overload that must be managed at this time by active human agents.

Christina Chang

Christina Chang
June 2007

In the society of the multiplying or replicating image, particularly in the context of social networking applications such as Facebook, staccato messaging is further incentivized by the narcissism of the application's structural form. Profile photos replicate around the site based on the flows of affinity networks and the relative number of posts each subject contributes. I see myself every time I communicate. Sign value becomes exchange value becomes mirror value.

At a time when the profile photo has become so important to what passes for social discourse, we might ask ourselves: what is being lost in the process of portraiture?

Mind\'s Camera

The Mind's Camera Portrait Project was a photographic study conducted in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and Budapest, Hungary in June 2007. The premise was to have subjects pose for a portrait that they themselves were to compose. But the twist was that just at the moment of shooting, I would hold the camera to the back of my head and photograph the scene in behind.

Some questions that interested me at the time: What role does composition play in the final outcome — both my rules-based composition and the crafted composition of each subject? What is the nature of performativity for the subject being photographed, who elaborately constructs a scenario only to not see it realized as such? What is it that the photographic subject is actually seeing during this time? How does the question of memory impact the eventual "product" of the photo? What about memory for the photographer, since what is seen is never photographed and what is photographed is never seen? What role does the metadata (ie. date, filename) play in the question of remembering? What occurs in that closing of the physical distance between photographer and subject when the outcome is immediately revealed?

The following constitutes a selection of portraits taken during the study as well as feedback from each subject as they attempted to address some of the questions asked above. Each photo appears exactly as it was taken that day, which is to say it has not been subject to cropping or other alterations.

Elaine Ho

Elaine Ho
June 2007

Elaine points out that the portrait is really not about the space behind me, the photographer, but about the space between the two of us, not unlike the space between painter and subject in Dutch portraiture. There is a relationship visualized between her and myself (not to mention the surrounding space and the objects it contains) regardless of the fact that the actual photo or data archive occurs behind me. As such, the performativity of the subject posing exists long before the pose, in the suspense before the event, which thereafter continues during the actual construction of how the portrait should be designed.

Laura Dean

Laura Dean
June 2007

For most, the process of composing their portrait was primarily an intellectual exercise. But for Laura there was a substantial physical component as well. She wanted to be shot in the wildflower-laden meadows that dot the hillsides of Saas-Fee village. But these are steep hillsides we are describing: Laura had to do a significant amount of climbing just to get to the point where she wanted the photo taken, and I felt worse and worse with each step she took. But she was a good sport about it, pointing out that portraiture is an inherently narcissistic act, which was brought to her direct attention through the exercise. For her the image was different than the experience and thus neither the portrait taken with the camera nor the one she had constructed for me could be considered "real" in the end.

Rory Parks

Rory Parks
June 2007

As soon as I took the photo Rory began to contemplate the space behind me, which was important for him as he understands portraiture not as a representation of physical appearance, but rather one of emotional identity. And that identity which an audience ultimately sees has already been abstracted by the process of representing, hence a desire to see that which was about to be abstracted-by-proxy. He does not normally like to pose for photographs (due to the results, he says), but will do it anyways as he is always hopeful for the next one. In this case he felt cheated that he didn't get to see the result and suggested that his self-consciousness influenced the intellectual after the fact. To him, both the portrait constructed in his mind and the one in the photo are simultaneously real.

Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher
June 2007

The irony (only dimly grasped at the time) in asking Morgan, one of my instructors at EGS, to take part in the project is that he was the director of the 1970 experimental film Production Stills, which attempted to invert the relationship between director and players, between what is seen in front of the camera and what processes remain hidden from view. A videocamera was fixed on a blank spot of a wall. Periodically a polaroid photo was taped on the wall in front of the camera, where it would sit until being replaced by the next one. The viewer realizes mid-way through the movie that the polaroids, shot and developed in real time, are actually documenting Fisher and his crew in the act of making the film; in other words, they examine what is lost in the process. I can only imagine what the hell was going through his head as I was mucking around taking snapshots.

Sean Smith

Sean Smith
(self-portrait)
June 2007

Of course, this study really defies the ability for one to create a self-portrait of any consequence, but it sort of seemed like a fitting way to "end" the exercise, as it were. What did I learn during the study? First of all, I learned that art is not necessarily an outcome but rather a process. There were theoretical questions I was interested in (not particularly sophisticated ones, mind you), and the process allowed me to explore them in a co-emergent fashion with friends and colleagues. Along the way I learned about my own performativity, not only as that of someone crafting an aesthetic exercise with a hidden twist but also that of a becoming-artist, which was simultaneously a defense mechanism as the "sports guy" within a group of artists and a silent cry to be regarded in some way as a peer.

(Of course, I perform by writing this for you, dear audience, and I perform by acknowledging the performance, ad infinitum, endless recursion.)

I was also surprised to learn how intent I was on maintaining the level rectilinearity of the camera as I brought it behind my head for the inverted portrait shot. The fever of rationality still burning within, several of the portraits initially seemed to me "failures" for that very reason. And as if to subconsciously underscore the fact, I probably shot the self-portrait version a half dozen times to get the framing just so.

Finally, a year and a half later, I learned that I am still learning. Art as a method of investigation doesn't lead to neat hygienic objective closure, results to be codified, written and published in a journal. It is process as process that continues to fold its way into my other art practices, my other writings and my other questions — in short, my emergence. "You must always force your way into the existing discourse if you have an idea" (S. Stone).

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2 responses to The Mind's Camera Portrait Project

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  1. sportsBabel » pluripotent says:

    [...] dear you: how do i know i am communicating with you if there is always an agent between us? [...]

  2. sportsBabel » Wolfgang Schirmacher: In Memoriam di Imagum says:

    [...] Scene: Flashback. A lovely stone period church in La Rochelle, France. The philosopher of speed, Paul Virilio, is giving a seminar at the University of Disaster. Block scene such that the Spy has a line of sight to Virilio at front of room. Cameras face Virilio. The Spy, who has unwittingly become witness to a network spectacle, can be heard from off-camera. [...]