Portraiture From Both Sides of the Camera

by Roger Cutforth

Roger Cutforth's portaits will be shown in HPC's exhibition, Texas 150 - New Texas Photograph, Septemer 5 - October 12. The exhibition will travel to the Southwest Crafts Center, San Antonio, in January 1987.

My portrait work began as a group of experimental photographic works in 1984. They grew out of a feeling of frustration with conventional photograph, i.e. the single image lying behind a glasslike surface in which any presence of the artist is excluded. For me, photography was always a sequence of images connected either in time, or in the consciousness of the person who had taken them. What follows is an outline of some of the problems I saw in photography. The notes begin by referring to painting. I was, and still am, a painter, though I’ve worked mainly in photography for the last fifteen years.
In painting it is not so much an issue about how things look as about how things feel. Photography is almost exclusively about how things look. I’m cutting up photographs and sticking them together so that I can get details from different frames all into one picture. The photographs are portraits of people I know. One thing can be said in favor of photography in this respect: it is revealing. Most of us have lots of trouble with photographs of ourselves. I search all the frames of the films for details that really interest me. These details of various images become a key for me as to what is interesting about this medium. Thoughts on the portrait of Kim Gordon work fast so that ideas stay ahead of the medium. By this I mean, what interests me in the images should stay ahead of any consideration of them as photographs. Think about the irrational. Is it possible to subvert the rational construction of the world that the camera constantly hands to us? One of the things wrong with conventional photography is that the medium speaks for itself and tells us next to nothing. Yet, another picture of the world, (the fierce photography of the nineteenth century, where the world was seen freshly through photographs) only exists for us today in the family snap-shot album. I think it was Carl Andre who once said, “Photographs are like rumors” (i.e. unverified information of uncertain origin). What I want from photography is the possibility of working creatively with the medium after the pictures have been taken. I want to process by which a picture is constructed to show in the end result. Photography, as a mechanical means of reproduction, naturally avoids this issue. This, plus the fact that there’s no visible presence of the artist, is the reason photography has such a shaky footing as an art form.
I want the work to reveal something that was not previously known. The psychology of the photographer or artist must come forward and play a role In the finished work. “Sometimes you can hide behind a photograph but you can’t behind a line,” (Paulette Nenner).
Man Ray sets us a good example but we have regressed.
What the world doesn’t need is another pretty picture.
Some friends are rephotographing photographs. I see this not only as a comment on our media-based cultured, but also as a reflection of the fact that everything has been photographed a hundred times over. Photographs no longer bear any relationship to anything other than an endless, ongoing series of visual statements. The issue of photography is a false track. The medium is invisible, forget it. Lift from the film whatever interests you and follow your intuition: it’s the only route to whatever power there is left in the process in its relation to life. I tell Dan Graham I know what I’m trying to with my photography. I want to show a certain kind of truth about it that’s contained in what I considerer the dross of my existence, test trips. The strips, made of the most interesting part of the image, accumulate in piles on my floor. I catch myself thinking that they probably contain a more interesting picture than the finished print on the wall. Bethany Jacobson asks me why I don’t use the test strips? Because I think I may hate what the work made up of them looks like. I think I may hate what really interests me. I constantly have to tell myself to go ahead and make a mess, to subvert the idealized perfection of the photographic image. “Photographs are always presented as if the photographer doesn’t exist. You are reinstating the photographer in the picture,” (Jean Fisher). The portrait work is becoming even more unpredictable, the result of a performance between the person photographed, myself, and the camera. I want the finished work to reflect these aspects. It’s odd that we think portraits can reveal something hidden about the person portrayed, yet do not see that they speak just as much of the person who made the portrait. It’s impossible for me not to see the portraits as mirroring my own desire, of being equally that which I want to see, as well as that which is shown to me. Photographing women the camera obviously becomes a phallic extension, through which I am intimate with them and take what I wish. But what about the men? The portrait with Jean Fisher makes me realize that the missing element in the construction of these works is myself. Jean plays me off against myself. Before the camera she displays an embarrassed prostituted image of femininity, then turning the camera on me, forces me into being a parody of my own expectations of her. This work is hard for me to take. I feel I am naked in it both physically and symbolically.
From this work I realize I can no longer handle the images I collect without being aware that they are also references to an unconscious meaning that is demanding to be brought out.
Roger Cutforth is both photographer and painter living in Terlingua, Texas. He has studied at Nottingham and Ravensbourne College of Art in England. In 1984 he received an NEA Photography Fellowship. His work is exhibited regularly in galleries in New York and Europe.