hat is portraiture? What is a portrait?

A portrait is the mental image we assemble of a person. It is a psychological construct, and the one we make of "ourself" we call our self-image.

Thus portraiture is independent of medium; one could say its natural medium is the mind. The validity, or accuracy, of a portrait becomes an issue, particularly when we discern that a person has what we call "a poor self-image" or "low self-esteem."

An outsider may doubt the inherent ability of a particular medium to be accurate for portraiture; paint, pencil, any direct human-body-controlled medium bears this suspicion. For some reason the camera portrait has been accorded status as impartial and free of bias, although anyone who practices this art knows better.

Portraiture is more than likeness, more than family record.

Socrates: "Know thyself."

John of Salisbury: "Who is more contemptible than he who scorns knowledge of himself?"

Lloyd: Portraiture is linked to human issues now taking their places in our conscious self-knowledge as a civilization. Some of these issues are: self-image, self-knowledge, knowledge of our personal history, awareness of others, awareness of our family members, awareness of our connection with these others, and awareness of the histories involved.

To be able to look into the eyes of a forebear and feel the link. Right into the eyes, and to see them looking back at you. Photography can open a window into a past time and place; portraiture lets us look across time and space into our personal human connections. It has been called the "shock of recognition" - the impact of art on the human - and a self-aware person can experience it when seeing into an ancestral visage. Genetic connection seems to heighten the impact.

A case in point: adopted people. At this late date many jurisdictions are finally passing legislation to guarantee adopted people access to records necessary to finding their birth parents. Adoptees have demanded this basic right for generations. All humans want to know their roots. The impact of a portrait of one's never-known parent is incalculable. The importance of what I call a "real" portrait, one showing the genuine person, is obvious.

Baby pictures are another good example. Too frequently they are not portraits at all, but assembly line products to sell the unsuspecting birth-shocked parents. A real portrait of a baby or child would be a life-long resource and treasure. Look into your own eleven month old eyes, your seven year old eyes, your teen-age eyes - what do you see? What a gift for your parents to give you, and so easy. Just go to a portraitist once in a while! The value is impossible to overstate.

Firemen know an interesting fact: what do people save from their burning homes after the children and the pets? The family picture album. The value of pictures, and, I submit, especially of portraits of our closest humans, is clear and well known.

Portraiture elucidates not only what we need to know about ourselves and our connections, it tells us about some of our most important activities, such as friendship. Examine the portrait "Nadia is Dying." Friends of six decades, one ferociously holding the other while she lives at peace in the moment.

As for family history, it's more than just a record of forebears' faces. Look at "She's Leaving Home." A severe test of any parent. To be able to look at our parents - and ourselves - later, when we are capable of understanding - that must be valuable.

I've saved self-image for last. I used to think it was of primary importance, but it is only part of what goes into and comes out of portraiture. Seeing ourselves as we really are, making eye contact with a "real" portrait, is an antidote to the constant spew of propaganda our so-called society directs at us.

From soft drink advertising to anorexic teenagers, self-image is an object of manipulation covered in lies. If ever the shock of recognition occurs, it does when we see our own real portrait.

   

Lloyd Erlick lives and works in Toronto, Canada. If you would like to contact him, his e-mail address is: . You may view more of his work on his web site: http://www.heylloyd.com.

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