Against the Synthetic Portrait–Rodchenko

“a [person] is not just one sum total; [they are] many, and sometimes they are quite opposed.”

In this reading Rodchenko discusses how photography is at odds with efforts to distill the ‘true essence’ of a person–in this case, of Lenin, an influential historical figure–but I’ve generalized the language of his quote because I think it applies on a broader scale. This reading is an interesting contrast with Roland Barthe’s description, in Camera Lucida, of encountering a “Winter Garden Photograph” that so perfectly captured an essence of his mother that it moved him to write “it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.”
In the last line, I wrote ‘an essence’ instead of ‘the essence,’ intentionally. I definitely believe that people have many different facets to their identity that they express at different times, and since photography only captures a single moment…if all these facets are considered essential components of an identity or ‘essence,’ then it’s highly unlikely they’ll all ever be on display in a photograph at once. So, if we allow that people may be different in different situations, it’s unlikely that any static visual portraiture medium will ever capture that full range.
However, as Barthe attests, some photographs of people do have a more magnetic, ‘true’ feeling than others. At first I thought this couldn’t coexist with the point Rodchenko was making, but after further reflection I see there is space for both. It’s as simple as allowing for the idea that a person [or any entity] may have multiple visual ‘essences,’ each of which may strike different viewers to differing levels of emotional depth.

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