Anybody can pick up a camera and snap off a bunch of photos that will serve as a memento of an occasion. However doing that has a much in common with the work of a photographer as the scribbles of a five-year-old have with the writings of William Shakespeare. For while the digital age has given us unprecedented access to the means to take pictures, it hasn't changed the fact that only a few of us have the ability to see and capture something special in a moment in time.
In his most recent volume of photographs, Mostly People published by Perceval Press, American photographer Robert Whitman, shows that not only does he possess that ability, he also understands the importance of environment in portraiture. Yet his skills as a photographer, as the title of this volume suggests, don't end with his ability to bring people and their surroundings to life; he is equally capable of letting us see meaning in the rust stains of a swimming pool as he is the frown lines of a brow furrowed in concentration.
Ask anyone who has ever attempted to take a picture of a loved one, or who has ever posed for their picture, about the process and you're almost bound to hear a variation of one of two complaints: that doesn't look like them/me, or I/they aren't photogenic. Sure all the bits and pieces that make up the subject are contained within the frame and are all in the right place, but somehow or other nothing that you or they do can make your pictures look like them.
Every holiday season it's the same thing; collections of photos filled with people who look vaguely familiar sitting on the family couch. Taking pictures of people so that we are able to see them is a skill that seems to escape most of us.
Where most of us fail is by attempting to capture an accurate representation of a person in an atmosphere devoid of life or activity. Unless we have trained to work in front of a camera, standing still, or posing, leaves the majority of us incredibly self-conscious and awkward. Without the focus that an environment can give – even if its something as simple as waiting in the lobby of a theatre for a play or movie to begin – the subject of a photograph appears lifeless or artificial. Yet the instant we liberate them from the shackles of posing and photograph them candidly, they miraculously turn into living breathing souls.
Of course we can easily ask people to go about their business and photograph them in the hopes of creating some wonderful portraits, but it takes a special eye to chance upon instances out in the world, recognize them for what they are, and capture that moment on film so that all can experience that same instant in time. Even a casual perusal of the content of Mostly People will give you an idea as to how talented Whitman really is. From the photograph of a street urchin crouching under the elevated chassis of a derelict auto on a street in Havana, Cuba, the image of a mother and daughter talking in a kitchen, to one of the many pictures taken either at the beach or a swimming pool, each are examples of his excellence at capturing moments that contain the stuff of life.
A mother leans against her kitchen counter with one arm crossed under her chest and the other bent at right angles to her torso holding a cigarette, while she stares at her daughter seated at the kitchen table. Instead of returning her mother's gaze, the teenaged girl is leaning her chest on the edge of the table staring into her clasped hands. While the daughter appears to be lost in her own thoughts, the mother is obviously focused on her daughter, her faced creased in what appears to be a mixture of anger and worry. If you didn't know before what it was like to worry about an adolescent child, looking at this picture tells you more about that experience than any text book or self-help manual could hope to do.
Scattered throughout the Mostly People are shots that Whitman has taken of the modern dance troupe Pilobolus in a variety of environments. The members of the troupe are contortionists of extraordinary abilities, able to fold their bodies back on themselves, and into a variety of shapes and forms. They interweave their bodies together to form constructions in an attempt to become part of their environment and as an exploration of the the relationship between humans and our surroundings. In one shot they are seen crammed within a barred opening in a brick wall with their naked bodies stacked one on top of the other much like the bricks in the wall that extends in either direction away from them.
While at first we can't help but only feel awe at the way they contort their bodies, after a while you stop thinking of them as humans. Instead they now begin to merge into the background and gradually begin to become one with the rest of the wall. For as they no longer look like our idea of what a human should, they begin to take on the characteristics of the inanimate objects around them. Of course we will never mistake them for the brick wall, but as they have lost their original identity of "human" they become environment instead.
While Mostly People shows us that photographs of humans don't have to be the stilted things most of us are familiar with from the posed shots that pass for portraits there are the occasional pictures in the collection that also blur the lines between human beings and the environment that surrounds them. While completely different in their representation of people, each has its own haunting beauty that is thought provoking and that resonates with emotional honesty. No matter what his subject matter, Robert Whitman is a photographer with an exceptional eye that allows us to experience the world and the people in it in a way that we wouldn't otherwise.
As is usual for a book from Perceval Press, Mostly People is beautifully laid out, and shows the photos to their best advantage. The company has a history of presenting the work of individual artists in such a manner that our focus is always where it should be, on the work, and Mostly People is a perfect example of what a great job they do in honouring an artist's work. You can purchase a copy of Mostly People, and many other fine books of art or CDs directly from the Perceval Press web site.