John Rae

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Following the Tate’s Cruel and Tender exhibition in 2003 the prominent style of contemporary photographic portraiture features just one person who is shown front and centre, gazing directly into the lens with little or no facial expression. Stallabrass (2007) identified a recognised historical lineage linking this “blankness” of expression to the photography of August Sander,  Bernd & Hilla Becher and even earlier the ethnological, pseudo-scientific, documenting photography driven by the criteria devised by James Lamprey and Thomas Huxley in the colonial British Empire of the late nineteenth century.  

The almost impenetrable visual message offered by the blankness in portrait images (produced for example by Thomas Ruff and others) is amplified and potentially easier to decode, when images are presented together in what has been a labelled a typological series. The viewer, when challenged by these (often anonymous) typologies displayed as a large scale spectacle on the gallery wall can search for meaning not just in the one image but also by comparing each with its neighbours.

Each of my images is presented as a pair, clothed and unclothed to invite comparison of state. The blankness of expression is betrayed by micro-expressions revealed by careful comparison of the faces. Though the subjects were directed and encouraged to offer a blank expression in both component image there is a discernible difference which may be read as more/less confident by the viewer. This reading may be accurate or may be a projection of the viewers own anticipated feelings.