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Picture This: Notes on Photographic Portraiture

"The first thing I am looking for in a portrait is beauty": K.B. Dixon talks about the intricate dance of subject and photographer.

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Willy Vlautin, writer, musician, 2019


ESSAY and PHOTOGRAPHS by K.B. DIXON


STRANGE ACTION

Roland Barthes, the great gray-crested Mandarin of French literary theory, described the complex experience of sitting for a portrait in his canonical book, Camera Lucida. “In front of the lens,” he wrote, “I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action.” Yes, a strange action. What Barthes neglected to point out was the similarly strange action going on behind the lens. The photographer is at the same time: the one he thinks he is (pure of motive), the one he wants the sitter to think he is (a competent craftsman), the one the sitter thinks he is (a hired flatterer), and the one the sitter uses to acquire an idealized image of himself or herself.

Kate Carroll De Gutes, memoirist, 2019

THE ONE I THINK I AM

The photographer I think I am most of the time is essentially a jackalope—part documentary photographer and part fine-art photographer. My hope is always to produce a decent photograph—a photograph that acknowledges the medium’s allegiance to reality and rescues an authentic moment from oblivion, a moment that preserves for myself and others a unique and honest sense of the subject.

Henk Pander, painter, 2020

THE ONE THE SITTER THINKS I AM

The one the sitter thinks I am varies dramatically depending on which basic “type” of photographer the sitter assumes me to be. The default assumption seems to be that all photographers are essentially commercial photographers, and they are thought of basically as tradesmen—people employed to provide a service (in this case to provide sitters with pleasing images of themselves). The upper echelons of the profession—the Avedons and Leibovitzs—are treated with a certain reverence, a reverence dictated by their renown, while the echelons below are generally approached as plumbers with Pentaxes.

Stephen O’Donnell, painter, 2020

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE IMAGE

For the commercial photographer the task is to make everyone and everything look better than it is. For the documentary photographer the job is something else—the telling of a story. For the fine-art photographer it is the achieving of some aesthetic end. There is almost always a struggle between the subject and the photographer (whatever sort he or she may be) for control of the image. The photographer wants one thing; the subject wants something else. The sitter understands we are judged by our looks and that an image can predispose a viewer to adopt uncharitable attitudes toward one. The documentary photographer and the fine-art photographer know this as well, but they have other concerns—their stories, their aesthetic effects. In some cases, of course, the sitter wants to be part of a story; in others, part of some artistic enterprise—but most just want to look good, and not just ordinarily good, but extraordinarily good.

Barry Pelzner, artist, educator, 2022

THE FIRST THING I AM LOOKING FOR IN A PORTRAIT

As a jackalope the first thing I am looking for in a portrait is beauty. It does not have to be conventionally beautiful—it just has to be beautiful to me. I should feel something.  “Beauty,” George Santayana observed, “begins with sensation.” It is an experience. This experience is personal, dizzyingly complex, and ultimately beyond explanation. I respect it.

Katherine Ace, painter, 2020

THE SECOND THING I AM LOOKING FOR IN A PORTRAIT

The second thing I am looking for in a portrait is, as I said, an honest sense of the subject—a sense of the subject as I have experienced them. This, of course, is the tricky bit—the way one experiences another person. In most cases I do not have much time with my subjects so my experience of them will be limited, but it is one of the quirks of the species that certain significant things can be communicated quite quickly—that we are evolutionally equipped to make the most of these sorts of brief encounters. I do the best I can.

Kevin Jones, actor, director, 2021

EYE CONTACT

“Where do you want me to look?” It is the first question almost every sitter asks. It is one of those innocent questions that turns out not to be innocent at all. It requires the photographer to take an unambiguous position on what is one of the central divides in portraiture. Where the sitter looks indicates one of two things—the sitter’s awareness of being photographed or the complete, partial, or feigned absence of this awareness.

Susan Sontag famously said, “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do.” This is obviously true, but so too is the obverse. There is something on people’s faces when they know they are being observed that never appears when they are incognizant.

My view is that both approaches offer the viewer precious information and that one is not more valuable than the other—it is merely different. Even feigned unawareness is telling us something. I wish I felt strongly one way or the other about all of this (there is no assertion sweeter than the unambiguous one), but I don’t. In practice I tend to favor eye contact—I like the engagement it creates with the viewer and the literal honesty of it, but in theory I do not advocate for it being considered truthier.

Tom Prochaska, painter, printmaker, 2020

A GOOD PHOTOGRAPH

There is a certain quality to a good photograph that I describe as “presence.” It has a unique power. It puts you in direct visual and visceral contact with a person, place, or thing that is physically and/or temporally distant from you. Photographs ripen—as the temporal distance becomes greater and more dramatic with each passing year, it adds to a photograph’s value as a document and as an aesthetic object.

A good photograph is not about faithful transcription, but about faithful representation. It preserves and presents a feeling as well as a form. If it is also beautiful and honest, so much the better.

Jackie K. Johnson, painter, 2020

HOW DO I EXPLAIN MY BIASES

I try to avoid occasions where I am obliged to explain my photographic biases—for instance, that a portrait should bear a resemblance to its referent, should be beautiful, honest, and if possible, black-and-white—but when I can’t, I try to do it succinctly with a quotation from the cloistered monk of Croisset, Gustave Flaubert: “I can have no temperament but my own,” he wrote, “nor any esthetic but that which derives from it.” In short, I have tried and continue to try to produce the sort of photograph I enjoy.

THE PORTRAITS

The photographs above are previously unpublished portraits excerpted from a series of ongoing projects. Most of these projects have appeared in one form or another here in the friendly pages of Oregon ArtsWatch.

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K.B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. His most recent collection of stories, Artifacts: Irregular Stories (Small, Medium, and Large), was published in Summer 2022. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His SyndromesAndrew (A to Z)A Painter’s LifeThe Ingram InterviewThe Photo AlbumNovel Ideas, and Notes as well as the essay collection Too True, Essays on Photography, and the short story collection, My Desk and I. Examples of his photographic work may be found in private collections, juried exhibitions, online galleries, and at K.B. Dixon Images.

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5 Responses

  1. K.B. Dixon is a wonderful writer. I’ve read a number of his books and from my point of view as a photographer I find them insightful and fascinating. Little did I know he is also a very accomplished portrait photographer! The work he has shown here is as insightful and captivating as his writing. I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t discovered his portrait photography sooner. But it’s also fun to find treasures like these sprinkled through the relentless flow of one’s life.

    1. And I had no idea he was a writer – and a good one! I only knew him as an excellent photographer. Now we both know!

  2. Really like the portrait of Tom Prochaska, one of Portland’s finest. Would love to see this forum used more to explore and promote the regional photography scene. We’re blessed to have some truly outstanding photographers in the Northwest. Best of luck.

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