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In a recent biography of the artist David Hockney I came across the following observations:
“You realize that the moment you put a word on a painting, people do read it. If there’s an eye in a painting, you can’t not look at it, as you can’t not read the word.”
Hockney shook up the art world by occasionally putting words on his paintings. They were part of the story of the paintings, an expression as meaningful and as integral to the thoughts he was conveying as the colors and paint strokes that accompanied them. They were not a gimmick.
I get that. Several years ago I was in a competition with another photographer who had taken some rather banal images and written a description of the day they were taken all over the photographic prints. I didn’t happen to like the result, and was a little disappointed that he won Best in Show in the competition. But I accepted that his work was a legitimate artistic expression. And I’ll confess, too, that until you got very far into what he’d written on the prints you were at least drawn into them by your mind’s natural tendency to try to read written words when they are put before you.
I suspect, too, that portrait painters have always known that a portrait will be perceived to be more life-like if the subject’s eyes are looking directly out from the portrait. As Hockney says, you can’t not look at them and I’m sure most of us have experienced a portrait where it looked like the subject was looking back out at us from the canvas and even following us around the room.
Look at this photograph from a restaurant in San Francisco. Do you not feel like Ava Gardner’s looking at you? It’s easy not to engage with Sinatra. He’s looking away. (My guess is that he’s looking at the women who are admiring Ava Gardner and the men who are jealous she’s not with them.)
Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra (photographer and date unknown)
The workshop I took this past summer in New York focused on engaging people when we photograph them. That means no candid shots captured on the sly. It also means that however we may pose our subjects they should be looking directly into the camera.
This isn’t some hard-and-fast law. Artistic rules are frequently made to be broken. But since eyes are humans’ most immediate windows into the souls of people, it stands to reason that having eyes looking at the photographer and adding the judicious word or two provides a great deal more information and creates greater viewer engagement than when neither conditions is present.
Jim, the Model, 2012