Régis Durand on: Patrick Faigenbaum, Roland Fischer, Clegg & Guttmann, Thomas Ruff, Humberto Rivas

Photographic Portraits: The Flotation Of Signs

In Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the narrator
enters, at a given stage, into a room where two young
women seem to be floating in the air currents flowing
through it until someone closes the door again and they
slowly descend onto the floor, as if balloons. This se-
quence has always appeared to me as a remarkable fable
of the individual identity, of the illusions which swell it
and precariously keep it above reality’s floor-level. Until
such lime when a decisive movement makes the whole
thing collapse and this moving fiction bursts out.

Photographic portraiture is one of these decisive move-
ments. It is an all-embracing set of signs establishing
cohesion and sense of belonging (both social and psy-
chological) which, as we know, are ever transforming con-
ventions. But, the fictional set that supports them, the fa-
ble of identity, purports a hard life, since it has never
ceased to occupy a central position within the represen-
tation and the interpersonal exchanges. It would therefore
seem that, for some time now, we have entered a phase
where certain new modes of communication have appeared
(and which in some instances prevail). In a recent work,
Marc Guillaume refers to it as la communication spec-
trale, which he defines thus:“There is a spectral com-
munication when its actors can do without, more or less
partially and provisionally, certain procedures of control
and identification which have normally been required be-
forehand. To escape, for example, from identity, defined
or definable, in communication, whether by name, pre-
vous recognition or corporal presence…“ (1).

What kind of images, particularly portraits, can such
communication generate (or tolerate), since it seems to
exclude any stable core of presence, any „cultural sediment
of established conventions“? First of all, a prolifera-
tion of doubles, of substitutes, which will be in charge
of representing that which isn’t any longer given by pre-
sence. One will certainly be able to read in these gares an
aspiration to completion, in the face of the mutilations im-
posed by life today. But this desired coalescence escapes
exponentially, due to the fact that we are rarely (and never
in photography) in a real situation of communication. We
are, at the most, invited to simulate or to recognize these
procedures of control and of legitimation around which is
aut an identity nowadays public. The art of portraiture
consists in allowing a glimpse of the richness of the ex-
change which takes place between the subject and the
artist and between the subject and himselt, and lo convey
to the viewer a feeling of an intelligence of these subtle

We are invited to a spectral banquet, as fake witnesses of
fake identities of which nevertheless, we obstinately try to
disentangle the signs, knowing that we are almost certain
to find nothing but our own ghosts.

Indeed. Opaqueness and wonder are withstanding ele-
ments in a successful portrait. In the portraits that Fai-
genbaum obstinately extorts from Italian aristocrats, there
is sometimes a clear connection between a face, a posture
and a place. Historical continuity, lineage, becomes then
absolutely obvious. But there again, it is also because of
the image that this happens: the memory of certain pain.
tings for instance. As for the remainder, that which is vi-
sible above all, is the applied scenography, the trouhle
taken to underline the ties with a place, the family likeness,
the postures, etc… that is, anything that may make these
models look like portraits of themselves, of living paint-
ings. And always, through all this, the strongest control
procedures, the familiar obsession of the photographer,
the „genealogical imperative“ which no conceptual alibi
could have pushed onto a second level, and which turns
all these photographs into something quite removed from
ethnographic documents (scenes of the Florentine or Ro-
man aristocratic way of living).

Indeed, we are nowadays quite removed from the obstin-
ation of the Barthesian subject going through the “initia-
tion path“ ‚ compelling him to aim above and beyond the
photographic platitude, that which he called the air- „this
exorbitant thing leading from body to soul“, „something
moral, mysteriously endowing the face with the shimmer
of a worthy life“ (2). The temptation of demanding this
from a portrait, however, is always there. To go beyond,
it is necessary to have an established intention, a violence
almost, depicted on the faces as derision or deconstruction
(found in Clegg & Guttmann, for instance), or a calculated
denial of expression (as in Thomas Ruff’s work). Other-
wise, the face will indeed speak and obstinately so of a
„worthy life“, as if it were the bearer of a spiritual value,
a religious value even, which one cannot get rid of unless
a very deliberate effort is made. “Luminous shadow ac-
companying the body“, „clear shadow“ of the transparent
soul…“And should the photograph be unable to show this
air“, adds Barthes, „the body goes without soul, and once
this shadow is cut off, like in the myth of the Woman
without a Shadow, there is nothing left but a sterile body“

Roland Fischer’s photographs have pushed this attempt to
capture the „clear shadow“ to extremes, choosing reli-
gious men and women as subjects, people who have al-
ready experienced this themselves (the same aim of the
monastic life), the long task of asceticism and purification.
the reduction to essentials the soul delivered to God.
This work and the ek-stasis of the entire body depicted
in the face („this peaceful verticality in ek-stasis on the
face“‚, said Olivier Clément (3)), were there, and the pho-
tographer would only have to catch them. Easily said but
nothing harder than catching a halo, a state of availability,
from those who have been capable of staying clear from
idols so as to become true messengers of the divine light.
With an exacting calculation of the distance, of the format,
of the inscription of the oval face in the frame, of the hairdo
or the headdress, from the confident quietness emanating
from the subjects which R. Fischer has been able to re-
spect, he has managed to catch the air, the spiritual face
of these bodies which are nevertheless also part of this
world, since they still have the other face troubled with
passion and internal fights. Somewhere between the c
tical aloofness and the distortion of excessive proximi
R. Fischer has been able to find the right distance that
shows us these religious people, void of depth or back-
ground, as if forwards within the image and truly at the
doors of invisibility even though they happen to be ab-
solutely present.

Thomas Ruft’s portraits are almost the opposite of the
above: subjects taken in ordinary circumstances (often
friends of the photographer), general lack of expression,
distance and framing which make one think of those in-
stant photo machines. Whereas Fischer would condense
all the spiritual charge into the eyes of his religious peo-
ple, conveying a genuine feeling of being looked at, of
being invited to dwell inside those „men turned into pray-
er“ as we would look inside ourselves, Ruff instead places
us in front of anonymous idols, squeamish somewhat.
Pastel colours, void of modelling or focus: there is a cer-
tain dilution, or perhaps a flotation, emphasized by the
size, that of a huge painting. We are as if in a portrait
gallery, albeit contemporary, but with the stiffness of the
paintings from either Gothic or German Renaissance per-
iods. Idols, most certainly, but not icons like Fischer’s
portraits, in their attempt to make visible what is invi-
sible as such (4), to lead the eye beyond the image. For
the idol, being a mere visible and momentaneous storage
of the eye, grasps all the transformations, all that is ar-
bitrary and unstable. They are precarious images because
they are temporary and dissatisfied fakes: Ruff’s photographs
(either faces or houses), have a „‚clean-shaven neutrality“
like those faces of primitive art mentioned by Barthes. The
later, however, were (still are for us) „totally available,
ready to receive signals from the soul“ (5). Ruft’s faces
don’t expect anything from us. They exist (float) separately,
anonymous idols of the „mutilated lite“ offering a mon-
umentally enigmatic presence, albeit light, quasi-absent,
since they do not reflect our glance.

Given the insistant attitude adopted by Barthes concerning
the expression of the photographic subject (of the person
inside the photograph looking at us), there has been an
entire set of ontological and moral flows from which to-
day’s image people are far removed (Barthes‘ early essays
about this issue are dated 1953..). The photographic pla-
titude which he endorses, is, precisely, the basis for many
contemporary works of art-shadowless works, where no-
one seems to be looking at us since there isn’t anybody
represented in them, indeed it is the theatre of repre-
sentation itself that is being de-constructed here.

Clegg and Guttmann’s work gives the best evidence of
this, through the explicit references to this canonical mo-
del of pictorial representation which constitutes Dutch
painting. Their group portraits, the vast majority of their
work, are complex games about the notions of identity and
power, and the forms they can take. The subjects of these
paintings, far from having an assured existence, almost
organic, like those of Rembrandt, are placed somewhere
between the diverse stages of representation. Are we deal-
ing with real portraits of several groups (administration
boards, for example), or with fake group portraits, as
seems to be indicated sometimes by the visible signs of
cutting and pasting? Are individual portraits less authentic,
or are they posing models (as it seems from the recurrence
of certain faces as well as the conspicuously histrionic
accessories, obviously borrowed gowns, decor painted on
canvas, etc.)? Are these paintings in fact commissioned?
Are they accepted or rejected, as is sometimes shown in
their title? In that case, what is the status of such an image
within the possible spectrum of representation of an ident-
ity? As we see, there is no certainty but that of being in
front of a complex question mark of strategies reflecting
the representation of power. Social and formal codes of
identity fiction are being stripped and dismantled.

Power appears then as an issue concerning place and
posture (certainly not location and identity). The eyes of
these characters seem sometimes to be fixed upon us, but
they could just as well be crossing paths somewhere in
the virtual space: we never feel looked at by them, because
their very own place is too uncertain and arbitrary to do
so. The direct, emphatic relationship between eye contacts
being excluded, we feel confronted with the need to re-
lodge ourselves in our role of spectators, compelled to
enter a theatre of performance.

Patrick Faigenbaum takes the most traditional stand (photographi-
cally speaking), casting shadows – sculpting – of figures
with a „genealogical imperative“, . manifesting a concern
of the highest calibre; Fischer, that of showing, within a
calculated transparency, with the utmost exactness, those
living icons rather than religious people; Ruft, Clegg &
Guttmann render inevitable, spectacularly even, images of
confrontation with the same strangeness of the great fig-
urative paintings which, nevertheless, interplay with good
measure with familear photography (thus upgrading the
amount of consensual hypnosis we usually allow when we
consider photography).

Humberto Rivas, on the surface, restores to portraits the plenitude
of their celebratory power for individual identity. His are
frontal portraits, clear, without distortion. Except perhaps
and precisely for the slight bravado that one may find in
this form of presenting them to the eye: there is no longer
an innocent presence, all is exhibition and representation.
Except also, for the fact that these portraits are often
marked in several ways: a scar, pimples, closed eyes,
glasses fogged as if by reflected light, the face of a boy
on a woman’s body, etc. Sometimes it may even be a little
nothing, an ordinary presence, whose strangeness (that is
to say, the point where we get lost) lies in the evidence
emmanating from it, the straight offer from a reality: a
woman whose clothes and posture give an exact feeling
of what concerns her, animal heads, flowers, portraits too,
or perhaps faces, surfaces with inscriptions where feelings
or affections are attached…

Sometimes Rivas appears to be tempted by exasperativ
or by the baroque redemption of the body. As if to escal
from tension and calculations assumed from a good po
trait, he exercises violence by way of a cut or by asser
bling fragments. Many current photographers have bel
tempted by this technique, a formal way of translati
doubt, inherent in the representation of identity. It is
doubt necessary to make a much longer detour to achie
this. since the results are hardly ever convincing. This
technique seems above all, to draw attention to oneself
and, furthermore, onto whatever motivates it (be it hysteria
or anxiety) rather than having an effect on the fragmented
body. Perhaps this is true of any portrait. But successful
portraits, those enduring time and anecdote, are always
the result of a negotiation and of an integration (which
cannot exclude a certain violence). Bateson called it
grace: this tension of the forces and at different levels,
has indeed got a price.
Régis Durand
Paris, February 1990
1. La contagion des passions
Essai sur l’exotisme intérieur, Plon, 1989, pp. 20-21.

2. R. Barthes, La chambre claire, 1980, pp. 168-169.

3. Olivier Clément, „Visages de silence‘, à Roland Fischer, Portraits,
catàlogue du Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989.

4. Veg. l’article de Jean-Luc Marion „Fragments sur l’idole et l’icône“
Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 1979.

5. R. Barthes, „Le monde-objet“, Essais critiques, Seuil, 1964 (1953),p. 25.

published in: Chantal Grande: „To Be And Not To Be“, Centre d’Art Santa Monica, Barcelona 1990

Régis Durand is a french writer and critc. He has been the artistic director of the Printemps de Cahors Festival; Director of the Centre National de la Photographie and Director of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris