I’m Not Whom I Seem: Fictitious Portraits

Last week I began an exploration into the art of portraiture. At the beginning of the post I asked some questions about the nature of the portrait. I think it’s useful to look at those questions again.

Why create a portrait in the first place? Is it to leave behind a mark on the world in the form of an image that will outlast one’s life? Is it part of an important historical record? A commemoration? A form of communication? And what does it capture? A real likeness or an essence? A possible persona that differs from reality? Is it a reflection of the person portrayed or of the maker of the image?

Cindy Sherman black and white photograph

Cindy Sherman has been making portraits with herself as the model since the 1970’s. I make a point to call them portraits rather than self-portraits because the personas portrayed do not represent Sherman. Instead, she renders archetypical women, from film noir starlets and society matrons to clowns and fictitious historical figures. Taking on the role of actress, photographer, model, director, and stylist Sherman makes conceptual photographs that are based on cultural expectations of female identity.

Three Cindy Sherman color photographs

Sherman looks out into the world and collects images of who woman are and who society says they can be. Working from many sources – women in film, magazines, online, in history, in our collective imagination – she turns herself into these characters, relying on make-up, costumes, props and her pose to capture their essence. In an interview with Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian Sherman says, “I’m good at using my face as a canvas… I’ll see a photograph of a character and try to copy them on to my face. I think I’m really observant, and thinking how a person is put together, seeing them on the street and noticing subtle things about them that make them who they are.”

Sherman has been making portraits for over 30 years. There are a number of other artists who also work with the idea of portraits of non-existent people. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is a relatively young artist who is concerned with new technologies and their cultural implications.

Three portraits by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Heather Dewey-Hagborg has taken the idea of a portrait into the realm of science fiction. For her series “Stranger Visions” she collected DNA from discarded cigarette butts, wads of used gum, and stray hair from unknown sources. After extracting the DNA she matched the code with traits on the genome that corresponded with the way faces look. She then created life-like sculptures using 3-D printing technology. In interviews she makes the point that the sculptures are “speculative interpretations not facial reconstructions.” She wants to pose questions about the direction of a technology being used in criminal investigations, imagining where we may find ourselves in the not so distant future.

To read the full interview with Cindy Sherman in the Guardian click here.

You can read more about Heather Dewey-Hagbord here.

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