Exercise 3.2 – Image repertoire

The phrase ‘Image Repertoires’ was given by Barthes to the four presentations which, he claimed, inhabited any portrait.  Here they are:

  • The one I think I am
  • The one I want others to think I am
  • The one the photographer thinks I am
  • The one he [the photographer] makes use of to exhibit his art.

Barthes suggests that these four meet – ‘intersect’ – in the photograph in a dynamic fashion to produce the resulting picture. I wonder how these influences might affect the properties of the portrait?  The one ‘I think I am’ might be thought of as my innate self as I recognise it, the unalterable essence of myself as I understand it. These essential features must by definition be best and most clearly identified by me when I look at the portrait.  I am saying to myself, ‘yes, that is the representation of me which I have come to agree upon as fairly congruent with my psychic self-image’.  This agreement has been honed over the years by repeated mirror views and photographs.

The ‘one I want others to think I am’ may result from my own deliberate efforts to introduce certain visual clues or characteristics into the frame.  It might be a dropped hip, a forward shoulder something a little more subtle in the facial expression such as a narrowing of eyes.  This artifice may backfire of course – it assumes that others will interpret my gestures in the way I hope, which they may not.

The ‘one the photographer thinks I am’ may be construed as the influence produced by photographer choices such as lighting, camera height and angle.  More nebulous is the suggestion that there is a fourth ‘one’ , that which the photographer uses to exhibit his art.  This may have become confused in translation and although I have tried to find an explanation I have not been successful. A Google search returns nearly 1500 results but the thirty or so pages I consulted  failed to expand on the idea.  What would really suit my learning style would be a visual demonstration of the presence of the fourth influence – ‘look, here you can see how the fourth influence is working within the frame whereas it is notably missing in these other photographs’.  Maybe such a visual aide could be incorporated in future versions of the course.

For the practical exercise we are encouraged to:

Make four portraits of a subject, aim for an illustration of Barthes’ four‘image-repertoires’. This will involve you discussing with the subject, ‘who they think they are’ and how they want to be perceived. Now attempt the exercise as four portraits of yourself. Compare the results of the two exercises.

Barthes himself isn’t a great deal of help from a practical perspective.  He didn’t make a habit of taking photographs – in fact, the photographic process seemed to make him unaccountably anxious.  Nor did he address a range of  photographic examples by other practitioners, preferring to rely on just one, the Winter Garden, to bear the considerable burden of his entire theoretical framework.

My subject and I need to have a talk about their self-view, specifically ‘who’ they think they are.  I don’t want to look like I have no idea what I’m talking about when I raise this as an area for discussion, so I have done a bit of research on ‘who am I?’

First thoughts:  Who I am is informed by the sum of my experiences.  They make me who I am and give me the raw material on which to base judgements about my instantaneous life in the here and now. These experiences inform my world view, relationships, my political stance and my personal ethics. This essential bedrock of personality, the who of me, influences pretty much every aspect of my life.  For all its enormous consequence it is virtually useless photographically, being entirely invisible.  It has no form and is not observable.  Even though I am very much aware of it myself, in a portrait of me it remains hidden.

But there are certain physical qualities which a portrait can present, and those qualities can provide information to a viewer by inference, always assuming that the contents of the picture fall within the viewer’s experience.  A portrait of a tall, muscular generously bearded man in his thirties would sustain a lumberjack reading better than concert pianist.  But the who of him – his childhood in a foundling home run by sadistic nuns – which has rendered him unable to form meaningful relationships with women is utterly invisible.  Except to himself, when he looks at his own portrait and sees himself all too clearly, painfully aware of the contrast between how he looks and how he feels.

So perhaps number one in the repertoire is relevant mainly for the subject themselves.

Our backwoodsman with the fine physique and the damaged child did make an effort with number two, though.  He may have overcompensated a bit, but the bold checked shirt, stout boots and menacingly honed axe are talking loud and clear; he may not have a girlfriend at the moment but among the lads he’s a force of nature.

The photographer takes it even further with number three – directing his model to plant his booted foot firmly on a convenient log, he gets him to lean forward to the camera, scarred hands clasped manfully atop the hickory shaft of his chopper.

So having worked out an approximate understanding of the matter, I need to plan a session with a willing subject.  Four pictures are required and I’m assuming that each picture should illustrate one of the four, rather than all four at the same time.  The first should be as blank and unadorned as possible, the second can allow some subject-contributed additions, in the third my own wild creativity will be given full expression and as for the fourth…  No idea.  Still.  The successive ‘illustrations’ (for that is what I fear they will become) will need to be cumulative, building the three ‘ones’ together to a convincing gestalt.   Then do the same thing on myself.

I could be veering off in completely the wrong direction here and if the work below is hopelessly wide of the mark I am happy to repeat it in the light of a little corrective instruction.

But before I veer, I’ll check out an alternative view – that Barthes was not referring to anything visible in the photographic portrait but to the hidden psychological processes which may occur when a picture of a person is made.  The repertoire is not about plaid shirts, doe eyes or cheesy grins, camera angles or lighting.  What Barthes was considering were the internal processes which the participants negotiate during and after the making of a portrait. He was speaking ‘first person’ – the context being how he felt when being photographed, with the emphasis on feelings.   If these internal machinations do form the basis of the repertoires, there is no reason to suppose they will necessarily be visible in the finished product.  Can we tell, just by looking, what the sitter was feeling?  Or the photographer?  If I adopt this (I think more plausible) interpretation then the exercise:  aim for an illustration of Barthes’ four image repertoires seems like a futile exercise in performativity.

I’ve thought about what Barthes said alongside the essence of the directions for this exercise and I conclude that they are incompatible.  I don’t think that it is possible to ‘illustrate’ Barthes notion with photographs so I’m not going to make a halfhearted attempt to do so;  it would just be box-ticking, I feel.

But I think there would be value in examining how Barthes’ thoughts might be recognised in the feelings of a photographer and subject as a portrait develops from idea to finished photograph.  I’ve selected some of the work of Rineke Dijkstra to explore.

Dijkstra’s interest lies in the transitional life phases, particularly adolescence.  She has made several series of photographs examining this:

“Almerisa”,  a series of pictures which show Almerisa from her arrival

“Beach series”, adolescents on the beach

I will look at a picture from the beach series photographs:

Rineke DijkstraHilton Head Island, SC, June 28, 1992, 15

>What can we see here?  For the time being I’ll ignore the figure and look at the setting; we see beach, sea, sky. There is little contrast in the background and even less colour. It is out of focus, unfussy, plain.  Rineke has chosen this background , I think because it offers a neutral wash on which to place her subjects.  The background is split laterally into three segments; this is a device which Rineke has used to good effect in both this series and the Almerisa one.  When the prints are hung on a gallery wall, there’s an impression of a continuous background from picture to picture because the junctions line up.  In the beach series it’s the sky/sea and sea/sand lines whereas in the Almerisa series it’s the junction of wall and floor.  There’s an amusing visual pun here because these features are themselves transitions, something she finds fascinating in her subjects.

Let’s look at the means of production now.  Here’s Rineke at work on the beach:


It’s notable how low the camera is positioned. We are looking at the subject from an eyeline placed a little above her knees. Rineke is using a 5×4 camera and sheet film, which in the kind of daylight intensity seen here could be quite low ISO and therefore very fine grain, rendering a great deal of detail.  I can’t be sure but a closer look at the larger file (the one above is websize) suggests a little rising front on the camera movements. This would make sense given the low angle – to get the subjects head in frame would otherwise require the camera to be angled up, making the upper body appear to lean back.  Just to camera left is a single flash head on a stand with simple reflector.  It’s not possible to see if it has any modifier fitted but the shadows on the subjects suggest not.  In any case, a small lamp at that distance will be quite a hard light – Rineke wants this because it reveals every tiny detail.

Rineke is going to a great deal of trouble to make it look like she took no trouble at all.

Now to the figures themselves.  The beach series consists of full length photographs of teenagers, most of them in swimwear.  They are mainly white Europeans.  They are placed centrally in the frame and look direct to camera. They are standing with their weight mainly on one foot, contrapposto, a stance which produces an dropped hip and shoulder. They wear beach or swimwear which shows a lot of skin – more is exposed than is concealed.

All the above observations are facts which can rely on support from what can be seen on the photograph itself.  The information which an adult can infer from the work is extensive and relies on personal experience and knowledge – this is where the photograph ends its work and the viewer begins.

I’m not going to embark on an exploration of possible inferences here;  it is well within the capabilities of any viewer to read a great deal in the pictures.  We have all been teenagers and experienced, usually first hand, the particular range of emotions that this transitional age brings, the body-image insecurities and fear of scrutiny, the intense desire for acceptance and peer identification.

Rinekes work is compelling because the opportunities for viewer / subject identification are deep and wide.  She has photographed them in a way that accentuates their vulnerability by subjecting them to intense scrutiny.  The balance of light – daylight to flash – produces a sense of unreality and yet the teenagers are clearly very real, which elicits a feeling of dissonance in the viewer.  The figures invite close examination even as their disposition suggest that they would be deeply uncomfortable with it in person.

The photographs are successful in large part because they are interesting, unusual (more so in the ’90s) and have a sense of intrigue.

So finally, to the point – the image repertoires.  If we assign the ‘I’ of the Barthes quote to the subject above it’s easy to imagine the first of the repertoires (because we are indeed imagining – it is not actually visible): she has a developing sense of self as ‘the one she feels she is’.

It’s very little stretch, knowing what we do about teenage girls, to deduce that she is hoping to present a view of herself which will conform to the ‘look’ to which she aspires.

Her compliance with the photographic process is complicit with Rineke’s intention to make a photograph which will be viewed by people when she is not present.

Rineke’s contrivance results in the integration of these personas to produce the last of the repertoire

I have deliberately decided not to do as directed (no change there, then) and I explain that decision by a careful assessment of the idea in question – the ‘image repertoire’ against the course direction.  My conclusion was that a set of pictures would not address the central issue, which I consider to be psychological rather than photographic.