Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The art of environmental portraiture
My mind keeps coming back again and again to this powerful photograph. So, today I opened the Bible (meaning Taschen's fabulous "20th Century Photography") to read more about Arnold Newman. It says, "environmental portait" - developed by Newman - is the art of including in the portrait objects characteristic of the portrayed person, thereby associating the subject with his work and with the world of ideas. (I think Newman didn't invent it, he only was the first to turn it into one's particular style. Just to mention Cartier-Bresson who used it as well, even a decade before Newman changed from documentary to portrait photography in the 1940s, and XIXth century portraiture was also environmental in this sense of meaning). It's like pizza actually, you don't need to invent it but you must make it in a way that's both new and outstanding.
I tried to get beneath the layers of Newman's photograph, partly trying to understand what Taschen meant by "connecting the subject with the world of ideas". First, it is a fabulous BW shot consisting only of three tones (black, grey, white) which almost gives the impression of an abstract painting. It is the black piano only that bring dynamism into the picture; if Stravinsky wouldn't sit there, we could easily mistake it for a purely geometrical shape. This alone could make it a great artwork, but there's the subject. Stravinsky is looking small compared to the huge black shape of the piano. He looks relaxed and void of any emotion, almost bored.
From here on, we have two options. (In Hungarian, we call this útelázgazgolódás.)
One is: the portrait gets its power from the contradiction between the seemingly unimportant artist and the huge, dynamic, powerful shape of the piano which symbolizes his music. Hence, the photo is about Stravinsky's music. He's only there to make sure we don't think it's about, let's say, Béla Bartók.
The other is: for Stravinsky, his art is more important than himself, telling us that he is a reserved and modest man (could you imagine a portrait showing a small Dali and a huge painting by him? I hardly think so...). Thus, the photo is about Stravinsky.
This is what I thought since I posted the photo a few days ago but today I discovered another layer beyond abstract beauty and symbolism.
To me, the piano looks like a lion, opening wide his mouth and Stravinsky looks like a lion-tamer in the circus putting his mouth into it - no big gestures needed because he rules the beast. And Stravinsky's music can be like a beast - just listen to this from 6.00 onwards. So, my path of understanding this photograph is: the piano reminds to a lion, the lion stands for ferociousness and power, and it is this association with the beast that leads to recognize the same ferociousness and power in Stravinsky's music. Newman doesn't show the music, he only provides us with a symbol from which we can discover the idea of his music.
And that's what I find ingenious - Newman lets us discover this music, the soul of the artist, by following our own imagination and associations. He doesn't show all this directly, like Cartier-Bresson in the famous Giacometti shot (also a masterpiece of environmental portraiture but I prefer Newman's subtlety). In the photograph, Stravinsky's lack of emotions becomes a symbol for mastering the music - not fighting it like Beethoven, not doing playful magic like Mozart, not meditating over it like Bach. He simply rules over it.
Of course, it was good that about 20 years ago, on a long train trip from Budapest to Lenti, I read his biography and hence know that he was a reserved guy, not devoid of humour but taking music deadly seriously without making a big fuss about it; he was a star, but didn't consider himself one. I don't have the patience and time anymore to read such biographies but fortunately there are such photographs which tell volumes.
And now - music.