Friday, December 30, 2011

Pierre Gonnard at Hasted Kraeutler

Pierre Gonnard is a photographer obsessed with light and the tradition of painting. References to Caravaggio, Ribera, Vermeer, and other old masters abound. In fact several of his large-scale portraits at the Hasted Kraeutler gallery look more like copy photographs of paintings than likenesses of the sitters themselves. His subjects are chosen from those whom Gonnard considers existing on the fringes of society: Gypsies, the blind, punks, immigrants, circus performers, and monks.

The intent behind photographing his subjects in this old master style is to both ennoble the individual and to reference the universality and timelessness of suffering.  The work is visually striking, and Gonnard’s technique masterful, but there is something very wrong with these pictures.

There is an absence of discovery in the work, which suggests a lack of attentiveness to the sitter. Through the formalized posing, his subjects often seem homogenized.  And for work that purports to celebrate the dignity of each person, forcing them into a simulation of a prior era’s style has the opposite effect; people are turned into art historical references and types. It might be easier to consume images this way, but ultimately it is less illuminating and less truthful.

So how does a photographer express a universal social concern and honor the uniqueness of each individual?  Part of it is treating your subject as a person, rather than as an object. Another part is maintaining an open mind about who or what your subject actually is.

You can see Walker Evans’ engagement with his subjects.  As viewers, we are aware of Evans’ process of looking through the lens; we see how he frames and composes. And we see a fluidity in how he does that – he is actively responding to what is in front of him using a visual language that is fully of the moment. There is modesty in the best sense in his work, and dignity for the people he photographs.

Both Evans and Gonnard are telling stories about their subjects' lives, stories that are intended to elicit an empathetic response in the viewer. Evans invites the viewer to share in his process of discovering the story; for Gonnard, the story already exists prior to his taking the picture. 

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