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. As an abstract notion this seems plausible. I don’t think Barthes was implying that there might be four discreet, discernible individuals within a portrait, more that there may be four individual influences at work.
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 himself – 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
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.