“The Poet and the Portrait”

In 1996 I made portraits of 28 of the poets in my class at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The portraits were framed and displayed at Java House, a coffee shop on State Street in Iowa City. Each portrait was exhibited with a poem by each poet. Here is a selection of these portraits and, below, the original artist’s statement.

Artist’s Statement: This is a group of twenty-eight artists of amazing creativity and strong opinions. Almost all of the poets had ideas about how they wanted to be represented, and the portraits therefore are really collaborative endeavors. My job as photographer was to enact ideas in a way that was technically feasible and visually interesting. I thought about each poet’s poetry and personailty and then, with the help of the poet, chose a place, time of day and camera angle that I felt was in some way representative of the person.

More often than not, however, a portrait is not a representation but is, rather, a fiction. A portrait is the photographer’s creative presentation of identity (often the photographer’s identity rather than the subject’s). A good portrait will play on the viewer’s notions of self and representability, of truth, of accuracy—it will have the illusion of the frame being the window to the soul.

I remember, in high school, showing my final project of portraits taken in Central Park to my great Aunt Snoekie. I was so proud of these photographs of babies in stollers, homeless people, drug addicts, businessmen, hot dog vendors, ordinary people on benches. My great Aunt looked carefully through the photographs, her brow furrowed, her lips pursed and said only one thing, a question: “Who are these people?” At the time I thought that she was naive, provincial, Her question, I though, came from a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of photography. It was a question of a generation who thought the point of photography was to immortalize your ancestors and document the minute developmental stages of your grandchildren’s lives.

Recently, I’ve come to realize that Snoekie’s question is perhaps the most central, complicated and important question to the portrait artist. It is a question of profound existential implications, terrifying psychological ramifications. Who are these people? Is it possible to capture humanity, to fix the shadow of soul in a plastic emulsion? Do I create a merely illusory, fictional image? Are portraits merely photographs of people or are they gestures of one of the most basic of all human desires: the desire to hold time, to fix identity, to create an immortal self?

I hope that these portraits and poems will make some of these questions visible to the viewer.