E. H. Gombrich
Making A Likeness
What is the difference between
a mug shot and a portrait? Capturing
the likeness of a sitter is a skill
which continues to captivate an audience.
Even though a photograph
is taken from reality, it does not
guarantee the portrait will ring the bells
— What is a Portrait?
The introduction to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book of portraits, called Tete a Tete was written by E.H. Gombrich. Who is Mr. Gombrich, you might ask? Born in Austria in 1909, just before World War I, he left as a young man to work at the Warburg Institute (London, UK) where he earned his first break in the academic world. His more notable publications are “A Little History of the World” and “The Story of Art.” These accessible texts to the respective topics of world history and art opened the academic doors of knowledge to anyone with the inclination to read a book. The reason Gombrich’s personal history is relevant to this entry is because he was a man of great education, who links connections across multiple fields as easily as a pianist changes chords.
When he was not penning a book on the Renaissance or art theory, he wrote essays which are some of the finest examples of collected analogies and comparisons that can be found on the topics of art and culture. I enjoy his ability to take a complex subject like Art, break it down into small components and relate it to analogous topics that we all can understand. Gombrich descends from the philosopher’s towering pulpit to encourage us to study the world around us, with the knowledge that human existence contains universal element. These commonalities enrich our understanding of art, history, and possibly even humanity.
But before we get too lofty, let us look at the relationship of Gombrich and Cartier-Bresson. They were born within a year of each other and lived to see the turn of the millennium. Gombrich (1909-2001) HCB (1908-2004). They lived through World War I and were effected as children who grew up in post war Europe. They both went on to serve for their respective countries during World War II, though Cartier-Bresson was the only one who served time in a German Prison camp. Their experiences illuminated aspects of the world which consume most young people coming of age. Those in search of themselves must, at some point, engage the question “WHY?” Surely this has happened to you, I know it has happened to me. Between all of us, we might have a few answers, but more likely we end up with motivations to continue the search for an almost unanswerable question.
As the Second World War ended, they each exploded professionally. Gombrich had spent five years in the service of Her Majesty’s Service, while Cartier-Bresson buried his three Leica’s in a box in the woods. He did not take a picture for over three years, while he was in prison. At least he did not take any with his camera. But we know his eye was constantly clicking, registering moments of geometry and rhythm. The time away from their work might seem like a loss but in both cases, the men agreed the difficulty was an advantage. Gombrich was enlisted to translate German messages into English. For ten hours a day, sometimes more, he studied language, its symbols and meanings. It served as a formative study, which took Gombrich completely by surprise. But when his time in the Service was complete, he possessed a new found appreciation for type, communication and most importantly meaning.
— What is a Likeness
Our visual and linguistic languages, or our words and pictures (to avoid sounding too academic) are not easily translatable. A picture can speak with a clarity which might require a thousands words to explain. Likewise for anyone who has looked at a set of Ikea directions will agree that careful wording could make those Swedish hieroglyphs much easier to comprehend. One system is not better than the other. They each have their respective strengths. Today, we will sit back in our chairs to consider:
“When we make a portrait, what are we really doing?”
— Is that Mona Lisa
The introduction to Tete A Tete posses a question to the reader, “Would we recognize the Mona Lisa on the streets of Florence?” How can a portrait be more true than the actual person? Have you ever had a meeting with someone you only know from a picture? Its confusing. They never seem to match perfectly. This causes obvious disasters for online dating, but furthermore is a problem for the photographer. We need to understand what makes a portrait work. If the likeness of a photo is wrong the picture will not read. It will look like the sitters distant, deformed cousin.
A good portrait however, will define a person beyond their physical presence. In the case of Jean-Paul Sartres, Gombrich points out that the image makes it feel as if we were “face to face” with the father of Existentialism, even if we never met him. Time and distance become irrelevant in a portrait. If the photographer does their job well, we feel as if we KNOW the sitter whether we have met them or not. So how does all of this work?
Gombrich breaks a portrait down into the subtlety of the face, the expression, decorum and types of scenes. There are more categories and he encourages us to add to the list. We will look at them individually to understand the build up of a portrait. Truth be told, many portraits do not work. They fall into a forgettable pile of papers which are best used for starting a fire. They are repetitive and made for mass consumption, as a result they are,
…insensitive to the subtleties of the human expression.
When Gombrich needs support for his articles, we get a sense for the depth of his working knowledge. While many of us have slight recollection of names like Leone Battista Alberti from a class on Renaissance Art, Gombrich possesses a seductive working knowledge of these artists. It is useful, because aside from his personal convictions, he often shares a sentiment with well respected historical figures.
“Alberti quite correctly wrote that it is
not easy to distinguish in a painting
a laughing from weeping face.
— E. H. Gombrich, page 3”
Working in two dimensions means the viewer cannot tell if a person is screaming or laughing. With the sound removed, the portrait artist is dependent on other visual cues to indicate the mood of the sitter. And on Alberti’s advice, would be wise to avoid depicting emotions that are unclear or ambiguous. Clarity will strengthen an image.
THAT’S NOT ME
We all have pictures of ourselves where it looks like someone else. The angle isn’t right or the expression seems off. There are views which are more indicative of the way we look than others. Leonardo Da Vinci noted that if you get the outline of a person right, the picture will look like them. Artists have conventions for depicting subjects so they avoid “…the spouse who complains there is ‘something wrong about the mouth’ in the portrait of her husband. page 3.” We want to understand what a GOOD view of a person means. To start with Gombrich suggests we look through police files to observe a full frontal and a profile portrait. Even if we are not dissecting bodies like Leonardo or Michelangelo we need to possess some knowledge of anatomy.
Cartier-Bresson learned his anatomy in figure drawing classes. He learned about the proportions of the head, its major divisions, and the ways in which an artist can distort a head to fit the needs of a picture. But if we do not know how to measure a head the results of our portraiture will be guess work. Leave the lottery to chance, but work to get a handle of the human head if you would like to make a good portrait.
“I like to photograph the animal in his _abitat.” Drop the H on habitat if you would like to deliver the line with a french accent. I have heard this line quoted by more photographers than I can name in a single entry. Cartier-Bresson nailed the bullseye when he made this statement. The habitat or decorum is critical to a master portrait. It gives a sense of time, place, and sensibility about the subject. A flawless example of this exists in the portrait of Henri Matisse and his Pigeons or André Pieyre de Mandiargues in his library. The next time you make a portrait really take the time to find a suitable background for the subject. Look for keys to inform the mood of the scene. Without it, the body will float in space.
THE SECRET IS OUT
There are no mysteries with a portrait. The sitter knows their picture is being taken. An implicit agreement exists between the sitter and the photographer. Unlike a photograph taken on the street, where there are no trained actors, the portrait artist and the sitter are each aware of the others presence. Gombrich gives a few examples of “Types of Cartier-Bresson portraits.” There are pictures where the sitter is arguing with the lens (John Berger), ones where they are lost in thought (William Faulkner), some where they have just discovered the camera (Avigdor Arikha) or those who are distracted (Coco Chanel).
We are invited to continue this list for Gombrich as many more types surely exist. The underlying lesson in this exercise is that in spite of the formality of a portrait and the fixed set of variables, there are an infinite number of possibilities. Cartier-Bresson illustrates how a portrait does not need fancy lighting, studios or assistants. A good portrait requires a keen eye and patience. Both are skills that we can all practice.
When we consider that Cartier-Bresson spent FOUR MONTHS sitting in the corner of Matisse’s studio before he snapped a single picture, we start to understand how delicate this game really is. The whole idea of a photographer having a few hours with a subject for a magazine layout seems utterly trivial when we look at the results of Cartier-Bresson’s time spent with Matisse. Only after months and months of time together was he able to make what I consider to be one of the masterpieces of 20th century portraiture.
As Gombrich closes the essay and sends us on our way, he gives us a homework assignment. Take a famous portrait by Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt or Velasquez and cover everything in the scene but the face. Put that face into a contemporary scene and see if it is still recognizable. For those of you who are Photoshop wizzes, GO WILD. Notice that the face of a figure will be completely transformed by the setting.
Gombrich and Cartier-Bresson both believed there are universal qualities to the human condition. They both understood that we have characteristics which make us different, but more things that make us similar. Cartier-Bresson was keen to link these elements because after an hour with Tete A Tete on our laps, we would recognize Giacometti if we saw him on the street.
The portraits are so strong, so full of life and under the surface they are so well designed that we can hold on to them even after the book is closed. Recently I heard someone say that for each famous photographer we only remember about ten photographs. For those whose eyes simply pass over the pages of a book, it is probably true. There are many pages of magazine toilet paper being flipped as we speak. But for those individuals, who value time and patience, the pages of a book will allow you to recall a hundred photographs at a moments notice. Just as Gombrich has shown us with his writing, the professional has a working knowledge of resources that will dumbfound the amateur. From his humble beginnings as a Austrian student he reminds us that mastery is within our reach.
I am not sure what the copyrights are like on this site, but here is a link to Tete A Tete in its entirety. But I recommend that you pick up a hardcopy of Tete A Tete as a useful edition to your growing library.
— Adam Marelli