compassion in portraiture


Someone at The Exposure Project picked up on a dangling comment I made over on the Hey, Hot Shot! blog last week:


The author went on:

I want to know what you think. Where does the tenuous line between compassion and indifference in photographic portraiture meet? What makes one artist’s portrayal necessarily more sensitive than another’s? And ultimately, do you respond more to a candid, unflinching portrayal of a person, or conversely, to a more allegorical image which insinuates rather than shows?

Immediately my head was flooded with images from Nixon’s Patients series, which were initially the portraits in question, along with some of Diane Arbus’ portraits, for reasons that I couldn’t initially put my finger on but am closer to now…


from Patients, by Nicholas Nixon


from Patients, by Nicholas Nixon

I agree (and think that most will) that Nixon’s photographs are incredibly beautiful, even sensual and seductive, the result of flawless 8″x10″ negatives and meticulous printing, and that is really the largest issue I took with them. In looking at the prints, I felt they were overly romanticized, and left me alone with the question, “what was he thinking?” and further, “who is being served by these images?”  

Was Nixon’s intention to investigate mortality, to confront us with our own? Or to present us with illness, to diffuse the stigmas and stereotypes that rest at a distance, behind the closed doors of a hospital?  My general reaction aligns with the latter question: the portraits were not those of the people photographed but of the illnesses they suffered. Their very personal tragedies and realities were alternately softened and sharpened, manipulated by glowing light and ominous shadow. 

Was Nixon insensitive?  I don’t know.  His subjects agreed to be photographed and obviously trusted him, how they felt after seeing the final works is information we aren’t privy to.  And really, I think they are the only ones who will ever be able to judge Nixon’s sensitivity and compassion.

It is interesting to consider though, that sometimes the perceived indifference of a photographer, as in the case of Diane Arbus and her portraits from the fringes of society, can also be the source of compassion.  Arbus was inarguably sincere in her photographs because she felt as if she were one of the “freaks” she was photographing.  The trust her subjects felt with her is apparent, as is her transparency in her presentation of them as fellow human beings. Arbus, it seems, was indifferent to the fact that her subjects could be and would be perceived as different and as a result, felt no need to make their presence beautiful, or tragic, or remarkable in any way. 


Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C., by Diane Arbus


Untitled (1), by Diane Arbus

One Response to “compassion in portraiture”

  1. 1 Beth

    Can’t seem to get these images out of my mind. Quick googling of Diane Arbus reminded me to rewatch Fur, based on her life. Back to the photos though, the older one gets the more likely he/she is to have some sort of major or minor surgical assault on one’s body. The picture, especially of the head scar, is a reminder of the triumph of the spirit over the vulnerability of the flesh. Guess it’s also true of that incredibly small infant and the gals with the stunning smiles.

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