Portraits that Almost aren’t There

You have to make an effort walking through Trine Søndergaard’s exhibition Monochrome Portraits. Each photograph has its own muted, dark color that flows across a wooden frame hand-painted in the same shade. You have to find the right distance and angle to even see the person portrayed. Glanced from a distance, or moving just slightly toone side, they disappear into the image, leaving the viewer with a dark, monochrome surface. The portraits constantly threaten to disappear. But they also constantly re-emerge in the meeting with the viewer. These are portraits that are almost not there. And they are almost not portraits. With Monochrome Portraits Trine Søndergaard challenges and renews the conventions of the genre. The people in the portraits are photographed sitting alone with their gaze lowered or their head turned away so only their profile or the nape of their neck is visible. We are witness to a private and quiet moment, with the model meditatively withdrawn into their inner self. Unlike classical representative portraits, the images have no apparent ambition to expose the soul and personality or status and life of the individual. Instead, the series seeks to visualize a state of mind. Maybe it is connected to melancholy, maybe a kind of resignation. It is difficult to label precisely, since the state is elusive and withholds something that cannot be communicated visually or verbally.The portraits may show a mental space the individual has withdrawn into, but they also make it clear that we as outsiders have no access to that space. With this enigmatic expression, Monochrome Portraits breaks with dominant perceptions of the photographic portrait.

A True Picture?
The face is the most important symbol of our identity. This is true in our own self-perception, in our daily interaction with others, and in our cultural, social, geopolitical, and historical worldview. It is therefore hardly surprising that portraitureis the most common genre in photography. At the same time the photographic portrait has long been dismissed, not least from an art perspective. There are three reasons why this might be so: Firstly, the portrait is connected to the popular culture of commercial photographers’ package deals and the happy shots of the amateur for the family album.Secondly, the portrait was considered an anachronistic form of artistic expression throughout the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, which left virtually no trace on the genre. And thirdly and finally, the portrait is accompanied by the idea that it is capable of exposing the soul of the model, something difficult to reconcile with a complex and globalized contemporary reality where claims of absolute truths have long been modified—if not entirely abandoned. The latter point perhaps needs more explanation, since it can also provide a context for understanding recent portrait art.In the infancy of photography in the 1840s and fifties it was commonly held that the photographic image revealed a truth about those depicted that was not visible to the naked eye. The camera mediated between outer reality and an inner essence. This heritage from the earliest years of photography has, in different, historically conditional forms, been paramount in the reception of portrait photography. Even though hardly anyone today would be expected to subscribe to a belief in the photograph as a true picture, it is apparently part of the set curriculum that photography-based artists cannot avoid. This is also true of the artists who in the 1980s and nineties generated the basis for the comeback of the portrait on the international art scene proclaimed by the American journal ARTnews in 1999.1 For example, in the eighties the American artist Cindy Sherman, with her staged self-portraits in meticulous, postmodern tableaux inspired by film, art, and popular culture, demonstrated that the self has no stable identity. Whereas the German Dusseldorf School photographer Thomas Ruff, who was a leading art photographer in the nineties,emptied the face of content, leaving a smooth surface on his large, impartial, and stringent portraits. Whereas the portrait art of the eighties focused on the theatrical and a more formalized and scientific format was on the agenda in the nineties,2 Trine Søndergaard returns to a more intimate approach to the portrait. An approach that should not, however, be confused with the sentimental or emotional.

The Boundaries of the Portrait
Trine Søndergaard’s Monochrome Portraits is a reconnaissance of the borderland between the portrait and the non-portrait. Formally, this minimalist series is located at the boundary where the portrait ceases to be a portrait and becomes a sculptural object or monochrome image which her portraits can also be seen as. In addition, in its own detached manner, the series stands between repetition and the exceptional; between the individual and the shared; between the solitary and the communal; between the inner and the outer. Those portrayed are all acquaintances of the artist. Unlike the ideal portrait of former times, which strove to capture the “soul ” of the model, here the photographer is an objective observer of individuals that are so absorbed by their inner space that they appear not to notice the gaze of the camera—or us. Their personalities do not emerge in the images. Instead the images seek to fix an otherwise transitory state of introspection and contemplation, to visualized it, and in the artist’s own words “normalize it.” Trine Søndergaard’s use of color in Monochrome Portraits further removes them from the realistic, psychological, and/or representative portrait. As Gitte Broeng points out, photographic portraits are usually either black and white or color. They are rarely one color, like Monochrome Portraits.3 The use of color is a clear conceptual strategy that also individualizes the portraits as each person emerges from the background of their own indefinable dark hue. And yet the portraits’ introverted and averted expression also seem universal, in that each individual is connected by the same color scheme, form, and square format. The series shows the solitude of the self, but also a formal and maybe spiritual community that opens itself to the viewer. In this and many other ways Monochrome Portraits probes the portrait’s boundaries for what can be shown and how it can be shown.

Notes:
1. Daniel Kunitz,“Changing Faces,” ARTnews 98, no. 3, March 1999, pp.106–11.

2. See also Christian Rud Andersen, Mette Mortensen, and Gertrud With, eds., Geometry of the Face: Photographic Portraits, exh. cat. The National Museum of Photography (Copenhagen, 2003).

3. Gitte Broeng, Monochrome Portraits. Exhibition text from Martin Asbæk Gallery where the series was first shown in 2009.

 
by: Mette Mortensen
published in: Trine Søndergaard, Monochrome Portraits, Hatje Cantz
year: 2009