"...we all take photographs of our loved ones (and our selves). The shift is perhaps that more formal portraits are documentation of our being; selfies are documentation of our becoming." -Donna Gustafson
A few weeks ago, Hyperallergic published an interview with the curators of an exhibit at Rutger's University's Zimmerli Art Museum, Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture. The exhibit covers nearly 200 years of portraiture, a vast timeline that prompts the viewer to think about how portraiture has changed with the advent of the camera and, now, the camera phone.The exhibit, and the questions it raises about the changing medium of portraiture, has inspired us here at the studio to think a lot about what we do and why we do it.
We don't tend to think about it, but it is remarkable that most people walk around nowadays with a camera close to hand. "Selfies" abound, and snapshots multiply on social media with abandon. We are all capable of becoming amateur documenters of human subjects. Some would consider the ubiquitousness of snapshots--the proliferation of the "selfie"--to be replacing more traditional means of portraiture. Of course, there are questions of quality. The "selfie" or snapshot take moments, sometimes seconds. They can be made by anyone with a phone, and are often taken in the spur of the moment, without thought to lighting, composition, or color. On the other hand, portraits are painstakingly crafted. Everything--from the lighting, to the positioning of the camera and model, to the relationship between colors in the shot--is carefully selected and manipulated to acheive an aesthetic work of art.
To many, however, the implications of these aesthetic differences are not as obvious. This is the digital age, in which an image can be created with a quick click. With such proliferation, it is easy to forget that this information, these snapshots, these memories can be just as easily lost. A phone is stolen or broken. We choose to delete photos on a whim to make more space. In contrast, the artistic portrait is physical and lasting. Portraiture truly creates a treasure of a moment, stretching it out into eternity and turning it into art. William Branson's work is crafted from start to finish with the future in mind, and the goal is always to create a portrait that will last generations.
As the art historians in Hyperallergic's interview note, portraits have historically been acts of love and commemoration. If the medium of the portrait deteriorates into the "selfie" or the snapshot, this act of love becomes fickle, the memory temporary. It is the difference between being and becoming, and the question of which we want to preserve, and which truly perseveres.