This essay was written by Richard Pickup for the exhibition at the Impressions Gallery ,York, England, 1999.

One way to view the activity of portraiture is as a search for the means to fix, and thereby discover the meaning of, the enigmatical properties of the human face. Painting has long served as the chief tool in this quest, although the invention of photography brought about new possibilities and a purportedly scientific pathway to success. When Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals claimed to have found a physiological basis for its findings, it was photography and not painting that was used to supply the evidence for an anatomy of expression.1

In the case of Jed Hoyland's 121 Portraits, traditions of portraiture exert an influence which is palpable: one cannot help but read its detailed faces (I notice eyes that suggest concern; a mouth that connotes shyness; a brow signifying concentration). The temptation to read, to see meaning, to look for a person, is as strong as the images are familiar, calm, and ordinary. We are today at some remove from Darwin's intellectual climate however, and the notion that an interior state can be transmitted through the lineaments of the human face has for some time been called into serious doubt. Influenced by such critical currents as Marxism, psychoanalysis and linguistics, a type portraitist has emerged who makes portraits not of people, but of portraiture's tendency to fail. Taking cognizance of the 'de-centring' of the subject under the rubrics of poststructuralism, artists like Christian Boltanski, Cindy Sherman and Christopher Williams have all made compelling work more concerned to erase its guests than to capture them.2

Should we, then, cast 121 Portraits in this contemporary light? I think so, but to understand why it is necessary to ask what is at stake in reading a face, and to determine what it is about these images that enables them to stymie or refuse the very plentiful meanings they themselves appear to offer.

Contrary to common wisdom, photographs are signs and therefore must be decoded — the world does not speak itself. Yet that we should speak of reading an image as we would a text is not immediately obvious. It is easy enough to see that we need to convert graphic marks into meaning, less so for images which have traditionally been taken as more rudimentary or intuitive than their abstract cousins. Photographs are a special case in that they possess not only the iconic sign's charisma of resemblance, but also the indexical sign's contiguity with the reality it describes.
One writer who has insisted on the analogy despite the difficulties is Roland Barthes. In the case of photographs, Barthes has some specific advice.3 In order to demonstrate the tendency of the image to hide its historical nature, we should separate its ontology from its meaning, noting how the

former serves to naturalize or innocent the motivated, social nature of the latter. This procedure is particularly suggestive when it conies to puzzling the relationship between a body placed before the camera, and the classificatory schemes and systems - the codes — that give rise to expression. It is not with an antecedent person that the burden of expression lies, nor is it simply with an image; expression is prescribed at a cultural level. Just as the text you now read is 'clothed' in its lexicon and syntactical protocol, so too are the bodies Hoyland's portraits dressed in poses and objects not of their own making, but that will nonetheless make them legible (a man in a Nike top is athletic; a woman with glasses intelligent).

It is in this regard that we can align Hoyland's portraits with those of the negative portraitists mentioned earlier. For although the depicted people are in a sense 'dressed' in cultural codes, there is no stable subject hiding behind the images, no final signified that might be discovered if only we had the means to peel-off the cultural signs. With its serial nature, 121 Portraits is able to show us the differential signs of individuality, but it is equally well equipped to remind us that these are repeated at the social level. Not only do items of clothing recur throughout the whole, but so too do facial expressions and 'body language'. To search for a person is to be led from image to image only to find that the characteristic marks are always elsewhere. Hoyland's likenesses are, so to write, just too alike.

It is in the nature of the medium of photography to bring to light details which escape everyday vision. We can impose the cultural code on the bodies in Hoyland's images but they do provide a certain resistance. A group of women hold their arms in a similar position, but careful looking indicates nuances — different distributions of weight along arms and shoulders, fmgers differently interlocked - unassimilable to the grammar. It is as if the photographic analogue, the actually existing anterior body, dis-articulates the code by providing an excess of meaning — there is, to put it simply, too much detail. With the code called into question, the viewer is left not to convert signifiers — a normalizing consumption — but precisely to read them.

For Boltanski, Sherman and Williams, questioning the possibility of portraiture has meant disrupting perhaps its ultimate modern ally, changing the object itself so as to leave Darwin's dream in ruins. Hoyland's approach is very different: in 121 Portraits we find no apocryphal stories, the people photographed assume no other identity than their daily selves, and no cropping or obtuse framing is used. It is here that both the difficulty and the value of Hoyland's work lies. In the place of manifest intervention is not so much a faith in the medium as an intense use of it; a working through of photographic convention that would wear-out rather than subvert.

                                                                                                © Richard Pickup 1999




  1. For an account of Darwin's book in relation to portraiture see Stephen Bann's suggestive
    essay 'Erased Physiognomy: Theodore Gericault, Paul Strand and Garry Winogrand' in
    Graham Clarke (ed.), The Portrait in Photography (Reaction Books, 1994).
  2. See the following for instance: Boltanski's 10 Portraits Photographiques de Christian
    Boltanski 1946
    - 1964; Williams' portrait of John F. Kennedy (whose long -- too long to be
    quoted here -- title begins SOURCE . . .); and Sherman's 'masquerade' portraits.
  3. See in particular 'The Photographic Message', 'Rhetoric of the Image' and 'The Third
    Meaning' in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Fontana Press, 1977).



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