Intimate Encounters: Marlon James’ portraits
[People] go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what’s immediately around them. The media have convinced them that what’s right around them is unimportant. And that’s why they’re lonely. You see it in their faces. First the little flicker of searching. And then when they look at you, you’re just kind of an object. You don’t count. You’re not what they’re looking for. You’re not on TV.
- Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Portraiture, regardless of the medium, is a loaded form. It has existed for thousands of years in cultures across the globe, but until fairly recently was largely the domain of the very important or the very wealthy. For much of its history, it was an illustration of power, a carefully orchestrated business, conspicuously trading in symbols, mired in convention.
In the contemporary moment, much of that has changed. With the increased availability of photographic equipment and the rise of social media, almost any one can have their portrait taken and publicly displayed (via the internet). Ordinary people increasingly use the photographic image as a means to express the self, utilising conventions but also creating new systems of meaning; new ways to index sexy, powerful, intelligent. Portraiture has been democratised, web 2.0 and the digital avatar ala facebook has made it so that it's not just Henry VII or Princess Kate who need to think carefully about how to present and record themselves. High school students do it, grandparents, newborns (if via their parents). We are all engaged in the business of determining which portraits are ”facebook worthy”.
For me, Marlon James's photography is profoundly sensitive to this context. His portraits (which are the bulk of his artistic output and the subject of this exhibition) engage this democratisation, eschewing the usual suspects- the beautiful, the powerful, the important- in favour of the banal and the un-lovely. He captures the ordinariness of people, those aspects we might deliberately ignore or unwittingly overlook any other day. Even the artists, filmmakers and musicians that he photographs, who could be construed as celebrities of a sort, are only incidentally so. They are first ‘ordinary people’ drawn from his immediate environment; friends, students he encounters working at the Edna Manley College, someone he saw at a party. They are represented that way.
This is a departure from both classical portraiture and the more recent social media variety. The effort here is not to portray the power or sex appeal of his subjects. In his own words, James is interested in having his subjects “unveil in front of [his] lens”. He has said of his engagement with his subjects: “I don’t like to impose any directions on them, I just let them be and the results have been fascinating, especially to me.” And his subjects do reveal. Yet, his body of work demonstrates a deliberation that belies the deadpan and documentary overtones.
For one, it must be acknowledged that James’ selection of subjects suggests a bias toward counter-cultural figures, both those acknowledged as such and those merely dismissed by the dominant culture. For this reason, an interpretation whereby the work is understood as re-writing counter-culture as mainstream or exemplary is valid. He is at once interrogating portraiture’s association with inscribing privilege, and utilizing that association to privilege the counter-cultural and subaltern.
Additonally, as much as there is realism in the content, there is a subtle but effective aestheticisation via form. For all their pocked skin, ample curves and latex gloves, these subjects are framed and lit as kings and queens, as rockstars and debutantes. Perhaps it is his background in commercial and fashion photography that facilitates the application of a glamourizing gaze while maintaining his stated intention to “reveal the individual beneath the layers.” Perhaps it is his Edna Manley-furnished familiarity with classical portraiture that allows him tomaintain the spectre of classicism while indulging the contemporary. Nonetheless, what might have been a tension in the work is a pleasing contrast, “ordinary” content with regal form.
Having said that, I can now return to my admittedly odd choice of epigraph. What Persig touches on, his description of this particularly modern form of loneliness is the question to which James' work seems to me to respond. This is the context in which it finds resonance. His subjects are always who he's ”looking for”. The gaze of his lens is always adoring, always genuinely curious and a little bit awestruck.
To my mind, therein lies the work's charm and subtle genius- it’s gaze.
- Nicole Smythe-Johnson