Monday, November 24, 2008

What is a Portrait?

Might as well get this definition out of the way. About 15 years ago, I asked Arnold Newman a question. This is how the conversation went:

Fred Hinegardner: "What is a portrait?"
Arnold Newman: "I don't know."

(This part of the conversation is verbatim. The remainder of the conversation is to the best of my recollection.)

Fred: "But you've been doing portraits for decades."
Arnold: "Tell me about it."
Fred: "If anyone knows what a portrait is, it would have to be you. I mean, YOU are The Authority."
Arnold: "Sorry, that's the best I can do."

I was shocked at first. Then disappointed. Then angry. But the more I thought about it, the happier I got. And the more my respect for Mr. Newman grew.

Definitions make things smaller. Definitions limit. Definitions put things in tiny boxes, categories, manila folders, and file cabinets.
Every time you define God, you make Him smaller. Calling Him "Him" makes Him less than Everything. Naming Him God subtracts everything one can start thinking of that is not God. Visualizing Him as seven feet tall keeps Him from being eight feet tall, or nine, or a thousand, or of infinite size.
Limiting a portrait to someone's likeness eliminates much about the person. Limiting a portrait to someone's face eliminates anything there is to say about their hands, for example. Cropping an artist's hands out of her portrait is, in my opinion, paramount to sacrilege. What would a portrait of Pelé be without his gnarled feet? Why would it be more important to show the nose of Pablo Casals instead of his cello? It wouldn't. Karsh proved it. When he photographed Casals, he only showed the top and one side of Pablo's head - from the back, no less. Nothing showed but a bald scalp and one ear that leaned over the upper end of his cello. It became famous. Now, having Casals already famous and having Karsh already famous didn't hurt its chances of ending up in a museum. One day a man saw the portrait hanging there in the museum. Another guy was already standing there in front of it.
"Nice portrait, huh!" the new guy said.
"Shhhh!" the first man said, jerking his hand up for silence.
"What, what?" the guy in the back whispered.
The first guy whispered back, "I'm listening to the music."
I've seen Pablo Casals nose. Karsh did a good job with it.

What someone's face looks like has nothing to do with who many people are. Yeah, there are shallow people who have nothing beneath their looks, and the only reason they are known, the only reason for their portraits to be made, is because of their looks. Record the likeness of Jessica Simpson if it'll make you happy, but then run. Run away as fast as you can. Ask her no questions. Do not engage her in a conversation.

For the purposes of this blog, and my own mental health, let me distinguish between two words: portrait, and likeness.

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