Mishka Henner, Collected Portraits
A portrait depicts a person. A portrait is made by a photographer. Do a series of portraits depict a series of individuals or the signature work of a single photographer? We more or less know how art historians would answer this question because connoisseurs know better than most the aesthetic choices that mark a celebrated photographer’s style. This is why we can confidently separate a Richard Avedon portrait from a Thomas Ruff portrait; or at least we think we can.
Mishka Henner confronts this issue by collapsing the portrait archives of twenty-four known photographers whose works span the history of the medium. Reducing each portrait to an almost invisible trace, Henner super-imposes other portraits taken by the same photographer until the cumulative effect leads to the emergence of an altogether new and unexpected face from their collected oeuvres.
Similar techniques were developed by Francis Galton for his physiognomic studies and were later applied to various subjects by artists such as Nancy Burson, Idris Kahn, Krzysztof Pruszkowski, Jason Salavon and Corinne Vionnet. In these works the central concern was the average depiction of a chosen subject, resulting in images that, despite their blurred character, “portrayed no specific type of person, but rather an imaginary figure endowed with the average characteristics of a specific group of people,” as Galton wrote.
Henner’s work is different insofar as his interest lies in the photographers themselves rather than in their chosen subjects. To illustrate, anyone who has been photographed in a formal context knows that one’s mood depends greatly on the photographer’s personality; a nervous photographer, for example, is likely to make you nervous whilst a relaxed photographer knows how to make you relax. Is it possible then, that these portraits reflect the imprint of each photographer’s personality left on the faces of their collective subjects? Do they simultaneously reveal the average subject each photographer was drawn to over the course of their career? Or do they represent no more than the ghostly residue of a technical exercise?
Erschien in ELSE Nr. 2, Lausanne 2011