Research Presentation, Nottingham Trent University, January 22 2015

Sense, Experiment, Surprise, Understanding.  PhD Research in Practice: a symposium for PhD students in the creative arts

Portrait as Landscape
John Merrill, Manchester School of Art (Manchester Metropolitan University)
My research concerns a myth. The myth that good photographic portraits reveal “hidden depths” when, in truth, they reveal only surface.

As renowned portrait photographer Duane Michals said:

“Most portraits are lies…. You can never capture a person in a picture – never”

In the 1930s Lazlo Moholy-Nagy wrote that a portrait should be:

“a biological way of looking at a man, where every pore, every wrinkle and every freckle is of importance.”

But that is easier said than done. The power of a face in inducing false perceptions and cognitions is so overwhelming that what a portrait shows – the surface – is barely noticed.

The problem is in the way we see things.

What we can see reasonably clearly is limited to an area the size of a thumbnail at the end of an outstretched arm.

Visual perception is an approximation – a construction based on the very limited sense data captured by our eyes.

More than 90% of what we see is fabricated by our brains and this is especially so for the face.

When we see a face we are hard wired to make constructions that are useful but inaccurate. To make things worse we also make instinctive judgements about the subject. And all this happens automatically, without conscious control and within a fraction of a second.

If we are to derail this system so we can make considered rather than automatic observations we need to remove all hints that are superfluous to the face. This means having a plain uninformative background, cropping the image closely so clothing is excluded, and having the subject adopt a neutral expression.  All the characteristics of a passport photograph and no more interesting.

_DSC7066 colou no profiler

But we instinctively make judgements about passport photos.

If we see faces in black and white we can actually reveal more than in colour. Skin tones of “whites” vary little in their range of pinks. In greyscale these can vary from white to black. And careful adjustment of tonal contrast makes facial features become much more prominent. This happens to both micro features e.g. pores, wrinkles, freckles and blood vessels and macro features such as the shape of the nose, ear, and head and the extent to which faces are asymmetrical. In every case where I photographed subjects I had known for years, I was discovering aspects of their facial topography I had never before noticed.

_DSC7066 v1-Recovered flat

When viewed together this series of white middle-aged men, selected purely on the basis that they are my neighbours, become disparate. Their facial topography is so distinct from one another it seems hard to believe they are all of the same species.


A serendipitous finding was that black and white images subjected to this kind of tonal manipulation came to resemble drawings.

This is very useful in helping derail our instinctive automatic perceptions and judgements by bringing about a shift from reflexive to analytical. It does so by introducing doubt. “What are we looking at?” “Is this a photograph or a drawing?” The viewer cannot instinctively tell.

The final element in my derailment is to enlarge – by about 20 fold. Each portrait is 1.5 meters tall. This has two consequences. From a normal viewing distance of about 2 meters the whole face cannot be seen at once and micro features, some of which are scarcely visible to the naked eye, become prominent.

Suddenly you can see every blood vessel in the eye, every facial hair and every stitch or piece of fluff.

RIchard eye 2

John Shoulder 2

And, hopefully you are less likely to instinctively and instantaneously make judgements of character and see facial terrain for what it really is – unexplored landscape.

BP Portrait Award 2015

BP Portrait Award 2015
It is October 26 and I am in Edinburgh visiting the BP Portrait Award 2015. Though the award is now in its 36th year, this is the first time I have seen it.
There were 2,748 entries from 92 countries of which 55 were selected for exhibition initially at the National Portrait Gallery in London and subsequently at its counterpart in Edinburgh.
I have a personal interest because I consider portraits phoney. We are enticed by the myth that great portraits reveal hidden depths in the character of the subject. As Duane Michals, a photographer renowned for his portraits, candidly states “I’ve known my mother and father for my entire life and not once did they ever reveal their true selves to me”.
I am familiar with The National Portrait Gallery in London and its underwhelming contents. It is not that the portraits are without interest, they are, but such interest is concerned with whom the portrait is of, who the artist was or what was happening at the time. Rarely are the portraits of significance as works of art. And I am also familiar with the photographic equivalent to the BP Portrait Award, the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.
Like the Taylor Wessing Prize, the BP Portrait Prize is dull. There is no invention and little imagination. Most of the subjects are partners, relatives or friends of the artist. Amongst these, two traits are predominant: men with facial tattoos and the elderly. I was relieved that none of the artists claimed to reveal hidden depths but most nevertheless made claims that were not apparent to me, e.g. “catching the transition between childhood innocence and adulthood” in a twelve year old girl whom I would have thought was nearer twenty than twelve and the “perplexity writ large” over the face of a father with Alzheimer’s who was undoubtedly old and wrinkled but not overtly demented.
Nevertheless I would always prefer the BP to the Taylor Wessing because the craft exhibited in many of the works is way beyond what I could ever aspire to. The photorealist portraits, of which there were many, simply beggar belief. The judges must also have a fondness for photorealism though their lack of sentiment prevented them from awarding Michael Gaskell first prize. He has to be content with the runner up award for his portrait of his 12 year old niece “Eliza”….. for the fourth time.


My Voice

This is my voice. It is written, but it is me.
Though I may SHOUT or whisper, my voice is not limited to the production of soundwaves.
Did Picasso not exercise his artistic voice with paint in his blue, pink, and cubist periods? And Bowie, whether the Laughing Gnome, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, was much more than a mere singer?
Voice is a mode of expression and the expression itself.
It is to do with language, accent, and dialect.
It is to do with role, both perceived and projected.
My son’s keyboard has different voices. They are labelled piano, grand piano, harpsichord, electric piano, organ 1, organ 2, vibraphone and strings. Each is one of an infinite continuum, modulated by the touch of a pedal.
“I” am writing, but “I” could be one of many voices – in harmony (as in “we”) or in discord.
Though I write now in the present, those words are now in the past and what follows is the future.
Who is this “I”? Is it the father, son, brother, lover, colleague, artist, doctor, teacher, student, superior, friend, enemy or merely “other”?” Each of my personas has a different voice.
Is “this” the same voice as this, or THIS, or even this?
And what of those voices that have no objective source? The voice of conscience or reason, the voice from a dream, or that hallucinatory voice that becomes the foundation for a diagnosis of pyschosis.
And what of the voice I utter whilst remaining silent?