Much of my recent portrait work omits the face. One project omits light from the subject entirely. What's behind it?
Here is a good definition of a portrait’s elements 1:
A traditional portrait of a dancer includes a face (often featuring a blank or neutral expression), a pose (sometimes a fleeting pose in mid-movement), usually clothing (some dance genres have an associated style or costume), and a setting (in traditional promo shots, usually a plain background or a stage setting similar to that used for performance).
I wanted to see if lessening or removing these elements would emphasise those that remain. There is evidence that people without sight possess improved hearing, so I wanted to see if similar consequences followed in portraiture.
Even the straight photography genre isn’t neutral: something is always left out. I’m trying to make it obvious that these images are choosing to emphasise some elements over others, and particularly by framing very close-in, I’m trying to alert the viewer that we are looking at something very specific. After experimenting a bit, I opted to:
I’m not aiming for abstraction though. None of these photographs are intended as complete, posterized silhouettes, nor are they changed in Photoshop. The near-black is simply the result of solely illuminating the backdrop, and there is usually just enough light spilling around that some features of the performer are retained.
By not including a face, there are no associations that go with a face, such as emotions, character, like, or dislike. By omitting light from the performer or lessening emphasis on costume (except perhaps for flamenco, where the dress dominates the silhouette), there is less attention to clothing style. By not including a setting and only using one colour for the backdrop, only the associations raised by that colour remain. After that, what is left? The pose.
Dance is all about pose, form, shape, movement, and rhythm. Dance genres vary by pose, form, shape, movement, and rhythm. Still photography is especially good at portraying the first three. What might we notice when the pose is emphasised? Perhaps the fundamentals of a given performance genre. Or the work that went into making the body into that shape. Maybe the intention behind a shape.
Most of us, if asked to extend a leg and an arm exactly parallel to each other, couldn’t do it. Someone who practiced that for years in a mirror could. A photograph that shows the leg and arm exactly parallel to each other, something that might happen too quickly to remember in a live performance, might tell us something about the fleeting nature of performance, or the work that went into it, or the difficulty behind certain kinds of beauty or expression, or whether beauty is intrinsic or symbolic. Perceptions will vary. The point is that without a face, we might still learn something, something different than what we expect.
1. Bate, D. 2009. Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Berg, pp. 73