Museums are an amazing source of inspiration, sometimes because an exhibition is so good but also when one is awful. Knowledge is gained in both instances. Today, as I strolled into a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art filled with Degas paintings, I was followed by a group of people listening to a gallery talk. They stopped in front of a beautiful painting called, “The Dance Class, 1874.”
I listened to the talk for a little while and was surprised when the speaker began to talk about Degas’ use of a skewed perspective, shown by the angle of the studio’s floor. Yes, the angle does seem dramatic compared to what a normal person would think a dance studio floor should look like but the speaker didn’t understand that the angle of the floor was at most a slight distortion of the raked floor in the studio. Having photographed many times at the Vaganova School and the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve worked in studios and on stages with raked floors. The first time you see one it’s kind of shocking. I always wondered how the dancers could stand on the angled floor, let alone dance. It’s possible Degas saw it in the same way and his exaggerated angles are due to the fact he only made sketches in the dance studio, working on the final painting in his own studio space. The painting is his memory of the dance class, changed from reality by time and Degas’ incredible talent of capturing bits of life.
Which brings me to the Bill Brandt exhibition I saw at the Museum of Modern Art before riding my bike up to the Met. It was a lovely ride through Central Park. Besides saying I was disappointed with the Brandt exhibition despite the fact he is one of my favorite photographers, there was a quote by him up on the wall that can easily describe my own work.
Bill Brandt stated, “…a portrait should not only be an image but an oracle one questions, and that the photographer’s aim should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future.” And more important, he continues with, “Snapshots only show the likeness of a certain moment and are never good portraits. The photographer has to wait until something between dreaming and action occurs in the expression of the face.”
They are so perfect there’s no reason to add anything to those statements. Coming from a different time, exposed to the culture and freedom of the 60′s, I have to add one thing. “A successful portrait happens when the minds of the subject and photographer make an unexplainable connection as if an invisible pathway opens up between their brains, allowing for a short time, their minds to become one.
Nothing more needs to be said. The portraits in this essay were inspired by Bill Brandt.