Capturing the Essence of the Individual
An essay on personality and the art of portraiture, Berlin
Journal > Capturing the Essence of the Individual

Taking portraits of the people in our creative network is part of FvF’s daily work. But what does it take to truly capture the essence of the person in front of the lens?

When it comes to snapshots, the highest compliment we can give to the snapper is, “You’ve really captured her.” What has been captured, exactly? Not the likeness of image, we take it for granted that the camera will do this, but the likeness of personality. This seems to us to be a somewhat magical process; it happens by accident, or for reasons we don’t quite understand. But any portrait maker in history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Annie Leibovitz, could tell you that there’s nothing really mysterious about it. Personality in portraiture is expressed and revealed through the sitter’s pose and facial expressions, but also through objects: the clothes they wear, the sofa they sit on, and the space in which all this takes place. These things are external to the person, yes, but they’re also, as Marshall McLuhan used to say, among the “extensions of man.” In the same way that a book is an extension of the eye, and a car an extension of the leg, a room might be said to be an extension of the eyebrows; another way of showing our face to the world.

This essay comes from the print version of FvF’s collaboration with USM furniture, Personalities by USM. Together we explore the inner lives of the creative personalities that own USM furniture. You can pick up a copy of Personalities by USM, featuring this essay and more here and find more stories online at the Personalities by USM website.

“There’s more to human beings than what they do for a job, and the good portraitist knows it.”

Portraiture as we know it began during the Renaissance, because it was only then that human beings became interesting as subjects in themselves. Here, already, things and places are used by the artist as clues to persona and personality, as they still are today. Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of Nicholas Kratzer (1528) shows the astronomer surrounded by the tools of his trade—his compasses and geometric models tell us who he is, much as the DJ mixer lying on the pavement does in Janet Beckmann’s 1984 portrait of Run DMC. In both, the impression is one of confidence and mastery. But there’s more to human beings than what they do for a job, and the good portraitist knows it. In Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melancholia (1514), we see a woman sitting in a room, with all the apparatus of scientific enquiry arrayed about her. But the expression on her face shows anything but confidence; rather, it’s one of disillusionment. All this progress, she seems to be saying, and for what? Here, as in images of outsider heroes like Kanye West or Lana Del Rey today, objects are used as a counterpoint to the subject’s mood, or maybe even implicated in it; an expression of the Christian’s belief in the vanity of material things, but also an anticipation of a more modern problem; our rush to update and improve our world, and our strange inability to feel at home in it once we have.

In the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement saw a more widespread refusal of progress, and portrait painters of this era accordingly showed poets posed in front of mountains and rivers, or emerging from supernatural gloom. Later, with Expressionism, this flight from modernity became even more dramatic; in Oskar Kokoschka’s portraits, chairs and rooms become part of the “external details” of a world that he no longer placed any faith in, and accordingly turn wobbly, or vanish. But contemporary work by Dadaists like Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann told a different story; human heads and bodies made of cogs and gadgets; the astronomer fused with his instruments. In the twentieth century, as Karl Marx predicted, subject and object became increasingly confused; accordingly, people’s personalities became fatally mixed up with their furniture. Francis Bacon’s paintings of George Dyer show the man melting and pooling into the beds and couches he’s posed on. Salvador Dali’s painting of Mae West (1935) imagined the actress as a furnished room; anticipating both Allen Jones’s human tables, and Andy Warhol’s factory couch, which was itself a superstar, rather than merely a thing for human ones to park their famous asses on. Warhol knew better than anyone the degree to which objects had become parts of our personalities—a fact also confirmed by Peter Blake’s Self-Portrait With Badges (1961), which reveals the painter’s personality via the singers and bands collected, in pin-able enamel form, on his denim jacket.

“We don’t always capture what we want, but we catch a lot more besides.”

Blake’s badges, like the astronomers’ sextant or Jam Master Jay’s boom box, have been selected for effect. But even when we don’t choose our props so carefully, an effect nevertheless takes place, perhaps even more so. Photographer Nan Goldin said in 1993 that her photos were a product of “emotional need rather than aesthetic choice,” and part of the appeal of her work lies in its seeming spontaneity, we have the impression of a life, or lives, captured in situ. Nevertheless, her squalid interiors and thrown-together outfits tell us as much about her sitters as the carefully put together “Turkish costumes” worn by Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Glavani in Jean-Étienne Liotard’s 1740 portrait of the couple hanging in the Louvre. Pop artist Peaches has always worked carefully to control her image; her sets and costumes have played an enormous role in the creation of her public persona, as “extensions” of her personality. But in her new book, What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches?, we see a very different side of the artist; snapped spontaneously at home, at work, at play, in a series of anything-but-composed outfits and environments. These, she’s since realized, tell us more about herself than anything she could have planned. We talk of “shooting” a photo, but for most of us, the process is more akin to net fishing; we don’t always capture what we want, but we catch a lot more besides.

Thank you, Craig, for your thorough examination of portraiture—it’s not often that we read an essay mentioning 16th century astronomers, Run DMC and Lana Del Rey in the same breath.

This essay is from Personalities by USM, a book collaboration between FvF and USM Furniture. Pick up your copy here.

You can also find Personalities by USM stories online here.

Text: Craig Schuftan