The essence of the portrait is linked to the enigma, to the questions more than to the certainties, as soon as someone tries to define it, they run into a big problem: given that there is no living being that stops transforming or individual that does not seek to match its real appearance with its ideal image, it is impossible for the artifact in charge of registering, commenting or criticizing this aspiration to be described simply.
As long as the individual and his image continue to evolve, no definition of portrait will be definitive: hence its strength and the unlimited possibilities of this genre.
The intention of a portrait can hardly be hidden: it always asks for someone but the answers are never the same. How do I see me? How do they see me? Who is the other? How do I see him? Who do I look like? These are questions that arise as soon as we become a photographic image.
While some photographers hunt for the instant or the lasting revelation of facial features, others invite us to ask ourselves where the essence of identity lies. If the portrait were exclusively a synonym of the human face, what would happen in cases where it does not require the presence of a face, but rather its dissolution?
Could we consider that a portrait remains such after an artist or an amateur has altered or dissolved the essential features of the model? And why, in some cases, do we have the conviction of being before a complete portrait even when the photographer describes an identity from its absence?
Since the beginning of photography, the experience of creating a portrait focused on capturing the aspects that defined a person, whether through their character, their tastes, or those physical or moral qualities that made a human being unique.
Far from this trend, the contemporary photographic portrait tends to distance itself from those representations that seek a balance between being and appearance.
Although the social practice of portraiture, especially through the media, continues to exalt the beauty of the face, contemporary photographic portraiture does not primarily seek resemblance, the duplication of features or the obtaining of a physical or psychological truth about an individual; the exercise of making a portrait is closer to a reflection and personal interpretation around the mysteries of identity.
In addition to revealing how a subject is represented, the contemporary photographic portrait questions us about the very essence, mysterious and unfathomable, of the representation of an identity. This is why artists explore new ways to answer who we are.
By questioning the boundaries of the genre, the limits and the rules that governed its manufacture, they ask us how flexible our ideas are: the intimate becomes the public domain, aspects that were not previously shown are revealed, myths are questioned around the family and its representation, times, beings and spaces are mixed, parallel identities are created.
This selection of images is representative of the book A través de la mascara. Metamorfosis del retrato fotográfico en México that brings together various sets of photographs that explore the frontiers of this genre from very different perspectives and associations.
If these images have something in common, it is that most of them seem to revolve around two inseparable notions that have been linked to the history of the portrait and the concept of identity: the mask and metamorphosis. We know that despite being the most sensitive and communicative area of the human being, the face does not contain the interiority of the being.
However, we are exposed to its simultaneous ability to reveal and cover up emotions. In it, all the masks coexist, overlap, intermingle. This exhibition reminds us to what extent the face is the permanent target of a metamorphosis in which not only its inevitable transformation is at stake, but also our very idea of a portrait, anchored both in the tension between the temporary and the permanent.
The legacies of the portrait
While for some the strength of the photographic portrait lies in its relationship with the past, in the tension between the permanent and the transitory, for others, its strength and fascination lies in its reflection on the relationship that each person has with their own image and with the image of oneself in relation to those of others.
Throughout its history, the photographic portrait has continued to be a symbolic object, a vehicle and a tool to explore, exalt and strengthen identities.
There are not a few artists who have incorporated technological advances to investigate different features of individual or collective identity through their images. By mixing, combining, superimposing faces and bodies to create ideal prototypes, symbolic and representative faces, some contemporary practices have investigated this question.
Portrait of the tribe
As the photographic portrait shows, our social identity often hides our particular identity. When asked who we are, we usually answer what community we belong to, which one we feel part of, what role we play or what mental or spiritual affinity we share with the rest of the clan.
Identity is anchored to elements that are shared with a community. Observing the Other, I intuit who I am.
The pact with the photographer
Posing is equivalent to creating a figure, placing oneself in a certain space in front of the camera and assuming an attitude when adopting a posture. Whoever poses does not lose sight of the fact that the portrait aspires to survive the moment. How to pose, what appearance to adopt to represent what one wants to be, an unfinished task, if we consider that when it comes to identity there are no solutions or definitive answers.
Even less so if we take into account that when one is in front of the camera to be portrayed, one is also under the gaze of an Other (although that Other is oneself) and that this second person can be the one who reveals, whether we like it or not, who we truly are.
There are those who, at the time of taking their portrait, seek a record of the transformation of their body and face: a portrait that confirms their existence. There are those who seek to build an ideal image of themselves for personal enjoyment or to display it socially. Others take the opportunity to dress up and explore other facets of their appearance, to create new personalities.
But there are also metamorphoses of mental or emotional origin. For some, surviving implies changing skin or sex, escaping from one's own body, modeling it, metamorphosing, reinventing one's face or identity. In certain cases, only the photographic portrait is capable of revealing the metamorphoses, be they immense or subtle.
It often happens that when we see ourselves portrayed we don't know ourselves, we are surprised by our own mask, our own invention. And we usually say: <<That's not me>> But, as Graham Clarke would say: <<If it's not me, who else could it be?>>
Another of the miracles of the photographic portrait is that it not only confronts us with our image through time, but also allows us to confront that other who wears our mask and ask ourselves who he really is.
This exhibition is based on the book A través de la mascara. Metamorfosis del retrato fotográfico en México by Vesta Mónica Herrerías and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, published by Fundación Televisa’s Visual Arts Department.
Text: Vesta Mónica Herrerías.
Virtual exhibition: Cecilia Absalón Huízar.
Digitization and image editing: Omar Espinoza and Saúl Ruelas.