Photographers on Photographers: Contemplating “Honest” Portraiture within Roger Sayre's “Sitting”

© Roger Sayre

Post by Chelsey VanderVliet

Have you ever stared at your reflection in the mirror for far too long, only to become doubtful of its legitimacy? Or perhaps you became doubtful of your own existence, should you wish to add a healthy dose of existential crisis to the mix. Or maybe it wasn't a mirror that made you feel these things, but a photograph - one of many your friend snapped on that weekend outing, or the selfie you shared on Instagram that "doesn't really look like you." If you are anything like me, you spend a lot of time narcissistically pondering your own image - "Is this face really mine?" "Do these lines and shapes really create and imply my identity?" It's hard not to think this way when we rely so heavily on facial recognition while interacting with our peers, trusting it to inform us of their personalities.

I share many photographs of myself on social media, wondering when I encounter either an unflattering or attractive one if I am really the person contained in that image. A girl less modest than myself responded to an influx of compliments on a photo she had posted by saying "the camera captures what is in front of it," meaning not only was she aware of her beauty, but the camera was as well, suggesting the photographic process to be a very straightforward and honest one. I read that comment a couple years ago, before Photoshop was as popular as it is now. I imagine many people feel differently today, as more of us have come to associate the photographic process with potential dishonesty. While photographs were manipulated long before the days of Photoshop, the wide popularity of the program has raised our awareness of the ability to do so. This, in turn, helps allow us to wonder whether or not there really is such a thing as an "honest:" depiction of oneself.

To simplify things, let's think about the basic act of taking a photograph. I'm sure we can all agree there is some distortion involved (lens distortion, overexposure, underexposure, etc.) in taking a picture - whether you intend for it or not. These are just some of the things that make a photograph look different in comparison to the scene before the camera. But even if there is a difference between photograph and life, how much of a difference is there? Does it even matter? After all, when looking at a photograph (that has not been manipulated digitally), very rarely do we think about how the actual scene differed, because everything appears as it should.

My fascination with photographic accuracy (or lack thereof) led me to the work of Roger Sayre and his project, Sitting. Part installation, part photographic series, Sitting “combines primitive photography with meditation, collaboration and endurance.”  By placing a huge custom-made pin-hole camera inside a gallery, Sayre encourages visitors to schedule an appointment to have their portrait taken. A single photograph requires an hour-long exposure, leaving the subject with nothing better to do than ponder his or her own image using the mirror the artist has strategically adhered to the camera's front. The photographs produced are dependent upon each participant's reaction to the waiting period and document exhaustion, restless shifting, or complete stillness. Sayre claims the photographs are "possibly truer than a traditional fraction-of-a-second photograph or snapshot."

You might be wondering "How?" as it is difficult to imagine a (potentially) blurry photograph revealing anything about an individual other than what their face might look like if you removed your glasses, but lets think about Sayre's statement in conjunction with his work. The selection of portraits on his website resemble old mugshots - grainy black and white faces, haggard and devoid of emotion. These portraits do not flatter those they represent, yet one might say their aesthetic is appealing, if not intriguing. The quality varies, making each an entirely new viewing experience. The portrait below of a middle-aged man, is one of the clearest produced by the installation camera. His gaze is fixed yet his eyes appear tired and heavy. Based on the tilt of his head, furrow of his brow, and creases along the sides of his frowning mouth, one might assume he is depressed. However, the image clarity suggests this man tenaciously confronted his own reflection during the exposure process. Maybe he didn't like what he saw, but he was determined to find something he might. The smudgy gray quality of this photograph (and all other Sitting photographs) contributes to such a melancholy narrative.

© Roger Sayre

Each portrait carries with it an air of transience, although some are more transient than others, depending on the sitter's lack of endurance. Unlike the portrait of the man, the following images suggest a great deal of restlessness. The first reveals a woman's inability to confront her own reflection, her gaze focused (somewhat) steadily on something beyond the mirror - a spot on the wall perhaps? Her struggle to lock eyes with her own reflection indicates this portrait is a documentation of insecurity. The photograph of the man glancing downward reveals something similar. Meanwhile, the third image, while it is challenging to decipher the sitter's facial expression, presents something different: confrontational body language (the head is facing forward) in contrast with lack of clarity. Maybe it wasn't her reflection that made her uncomfortable, but the hour long exposure.

© Roger Sayre

© Roger Sayre

© Roger Sayre

The intrigue behind these portraits lies in the fact they give viewers the opportunity to ponder why they appear the way they do, to imagine what each individual was thinking while waiting in solitude for an hour. Sitting is all about self-awareness, so to better understand the experiences of those photographed, I decided to stare at my own reflection, just as they did, for sixty minutes. No camera was present, so no photograph was produced, but I wanted to find out how the wait might impact my perspective. Positioning a wicker stool in front of my bathroom mirror, I sat for a lengthy staring contest with my own reflection. After ten minutes my eyes began to grow tired and red-rimmed - it's no wonder all of Sayre's subjects look exhausted. In half an hour, I developed tunnel vision and various facial features of mine started projecting off my face in an exaggerated manner. I experienced two different kinds of self-awareness: 1. being hyper-aware of my own reflection, and 2. being aware of what it might look like to find me like this, positioned before the mirror as if it were some kind of altar. The conditions surrounding my experiment differed from those of the installation, where the subjects are "on exhibit in the gallery during the time they are sitting for their one-hour exposure," but even in a quiet room, my experience felt performative as I was unable to relax anytime I heard footsteps outside the door.

Each Sitting photograph acts as a complex narrative, demonstrating how individuals react to their reflections, and to being on display within a gallery. The pin-hole camera produces images that are ephemeral yet documentary - ephemeral like a charcoal drawing that disintegrates and smears regardless of how much fixative has been sprayed to the paper's surface, and documentary in the way each photograph shows a face captured over the span of an hour. Are these "honest" photographs? I don't know if any photograph can ever be labeled as 100% honest - or if I even have the authority to claim any image as truly honest. However, the photographs produced by the Sitting installation possess a greater capacity for honesty than typical photographs, but only when viewers understand the process behind them.

Chelsey VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. She currently lives and works in Jersey City, New Jersey. Working primarily in photography, her work investigates concepts of identity, authenticity, and placement of self. She is fascinated by pathetic imagery, music culture, language as presence, and unease in the familiar.

Dawn Roe helped to organize this post. 


Guest Project Shortlist 10.23.14: Salym Fayad - Africa, photography and the digital era

© Sahel Digital Art

Project Shortlists share recommended portfolios, sites, and projects. A recommendation does not mean more than that - just a recommended look. These shortlists are archived on the site links page.

Today's guest for Project Shortlist is Salym Fayad.

Salym Fayad is an independent reporter and documentary photographer from Bogota, Colombia based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has traveled the African continent reporting on issues related to popular culture and music, migration, conflict and human rights. His articles and photographs have appeared in El Tiempo, Arcadia Magazine, Semana, El Malpensante, Gatopardo, The Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Southern Pulse Magazine, Agence France-Presse and Libération.

Nataly Castaño helped organize this post.

© Paul Sika

Paul Sika – At The Heart Of Me

Inspired by the esthetics of comic books, video games, sci-fi films and Japanese animation, "photomaker" Paul Sika from Cote d’Ivoire creates theatrical images depicting African urban scenes that he describes as "one-frame films." Influenced by pop icons ranging from Andy Warhol and David LaChapelle to Ivoirian footballer Didier Drogba, Sika composes psychedelic, digitally-intervened Technicolor series that he complements with written entries in his digital book At The Heart of Me: The logbook of a joyful dreamer.

Instagraming Everyday Africa

Instagram project Everyday Africa uses the photo-sharing platform to challenge stereotypical and one-dimensional perceptions of the African continent often portrayed by Western media. Through a network of contributors including foreign correspondents and African photographers such as Nana Kofi Acquah and Andrew Esiebo (also known for his series of barbershops in West Africa), the project brings together mobile and street photography and social media to disseminate vignettes of ordinary life captured in different parts of urban and rural Africa.

© François Beaurain

François Beaurain – Monrovia animated

The surroundings of the once luxurious and now derelict Ducor Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia, provide the location for the animated GIFs of French photographer François Beaurain. The cyclical motion of his models, infinitely multiplied, brings the abandoned building back to life and offers a warm and often humorous view of Liberia's capital, while it traps the spectator's eye through the hypnotic effect of animated images in perpetual repetition.

© Sahel Digital Art

Sahel Digital Art

Mobile and web-based applications for graphic design and lo-fi image manipulation have allowed the Sahel's cellphone users to reimagine themselves in apocalyptic scenarios, with robotic limbs or surrounded by wild animals or stacks of cash. The trend, which has been documented by ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, has also allowed Tuareg separatists to create a digital world in which their unrecognized state of Azawad in northern Mali has an airline, a football team and even a seat at the United Nations.

© Sahel Digital Art

© Mutua Matheka

Mutua Matheka – Nairobi City

Nairobi's skyline, framed by dramatic dawns and sunsets, headlights and city lights (and a fair amount of Photoshopping) compose Mutua Matheka's vibrant cityscapes of the Kenyan capital. The images are Matheka's answer to the often exaggerated glow of first-world cities' postcards. Yet he argues that the pictures were not taken "to change the perception of foreigners" about the city, but for Kenyans themselves.


Guest Reading Shortlist 10.21.14: Jo Ann Walters

The Reading Shortlist is an occasional post with an eclectic listing of recommended sites, readings and links. A recommendation does not necessarily suggest an agreement with the contents of the post. For previous shortlists, please visit the site links page.

Today's guest for Reading Shortlist is Jo Ann Walters.

Jo Ann Walters has work in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris France among other institutions. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and has had numerous solo exhibitions throughout the United States. She is a professor at Purchase College, SUNY in New York State.

Nataly Castaño helped organize this post.

"The Suit and the Photograph" by John Berger.

This is my favorite essay by John Berger, though there are so many great ones. I have used it in my Portrait/Self Portrait seminar for over 15 years. John Berger begins this essay about August Sander with two questions: "What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their picture? And, how did he say it so they all believed him in the same way?" He answers these questions by way of three group portraits of men wearing suits. He slowly and brilliantly builds context by examining the origins and history of the suit.

Photographs discussed:

© August Sander, Young Farmers, 1914

© August Sander, Village Band, 1913

© August Sander, Four Protestant Missionaries, 1931

3-Sections by Vijay Seshadri

3-Sections by Vijay Seshadri  is an amazing book of poetry and prose pieces. I have provided a link to a poem included in 3-Sections. review for the book as a whole. Both the poem and prose piece are referenced in the review.  However, I was unable to find a link to Pacific Fishes of Canada, thus I have included a link to a review for the book as a whole and which references this essay.  So unless I am mistaken, you will have to buy the book, which is worth every penny. or visit the library. so unless I am mistaken, you will have to buy the book, which is worth every penny or visit the library. This wonderful  essay and says so much about the worth of youthful experience, ill conceived or otherwise. It is  fodder for voice and vision.This wonderful  essay and says so much about the worth of youthful experience, ill conceived or otherwise. It is  fodder for voice and vision.

          "Imaginary Number"

          This last line from the poem Imaginary Number is introduction enough:

          The soul, / like the square root of minus 1, / is an impossibility that has its uses.

          "Pacific Fishes of Canada"

          This prose piece is a highly personal essay about salmon fisherman set off the northwestern
          American shores during the Cold War. It is rich in information with sensuously detailed
          descriptions of marine life and the business and politics of commercial fishing. Nevertheless
          its arch remains deeply autobiographical. It tells the story of a young Indian American man's
          romantic self gone awry as he suffers from chronic an horrible seasickness throughout
          devastating storms and his subsequent unspeakable transformation that occurs at "the great
          intersection of sea and sky… in the gloom at the edge of the world.”

The Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop

This is one of my favorite poems. When I bought  3-Sections by Vijay Seshadri,  I had never heard of him. My decision to purchase it came after spending about 15 minutes reading through the book. I read the entire book and had a beautifully cerebral and often unsettling, even disturbing, visceral experience at once.  I then read a bit about him and his poetry.  I discovered that he was a great admirer of Elizabeth Bishop and he specifically speaks about "In the Waiting Room"  in an interview. Bishop’s biographer Brett Millier described the poem as "the simultaneous realization of selfhood and the awful otherness of the inevitable world."


Artist Statement Generator
Go to site and fill in all the fields.

This artist statement generator was emailed to me accompanied by this note:

"I have a sinking feeling that the ability of this generator to approximate an enlightened artist statement that could seemingly pass for me and my work may in fact be a symptom of a problem (with me and my work). Am curious if it gets anywhere near you and your work."

Like the sender, we should all be worried!

Italo Calvino's poetic "CV"  from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

As an antidote to the Artist Statement Generator above I offer you Italo Calvino's "CV." In a letter written to his publisher in the fall of 1969, Calvino sends this poetic curriculum vitae.


Nicholas Muellner's Amnesia Pavilions
Photographs and text by Nicholas Muellner
A-Jump Books, Ithaca, NY, 2011
220 pages; 81 color and 31 black & white illustrations
Edition of 500

I love this book by Nick Muellner. Nick was an undergraduate student of mine at Yale.
He graduated with a BA in Comparative Literature and a minor in Biochemistry and Biophysics while taking photography courses as electives. I received his book in the mail one day with the most beautiful words inscribed: "For Jo Ann, whose invisible fingerprints are already everywhere in this book." Amnesia Pavilions is an autobiographical story made up of words and photography. It chronicles Nick's return to a small city in Eastern Siberia after a seventeen year hiatus in search of a close friend he had met on his earlier journey. Without warning or explanation their correspondence ends. Nick is haunted by his friend's disappearance. The book philosophically and poetically reflects on photography's historical, vernacular and personal roles as well as the enormous social and cultural transformations of provincial Russian to the present day. But it remains deeply intimate and autobiographical as he reflects on his beleaguered and futile effort to retrace his steps in search of friendship and his former self.


Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

This is one of my favorite memoirs and Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite living authors. My Name Is Red, Museum of Innocence

I often use these chapters in my Portrait/Self-Portrait seminar: Chapter 1: "The Other Orhan," Chapter 2: "Photographs in the Dark Museum House," and Chapter 3: "Me."

"Image of Proust" by Walter Benjamin (p 201-216)

I was down for over a month with asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia and attendant breathing problems most likely contracted while photographing the flooding Mississippi River in Grafton, Illinois over the past summer. While recuperating, I was reflecting on the first time I read Proust in the early 1980's while living a quiet life in Maine. I was reclining on a outdoor lounge chair in my backyard covered in blankets and coughing terribly. I looked up asthma on the Internet and read through various symptom lists, causes and remedies. By a surprising piece of luck, I came upon an essay by Walter Benjamin via the word asthma. I knew of Proust's self-isolation but not of his debilitating illness. Benjamin speaks of  the "symbiosis between this [Proust's] particular creativity and this particular malady…This asthma became part of his art - if indeed his art did not create it. Proust's syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories."

Tom Engelhardt

I remember having little interest or patience for politics day-to-day or the news.  In high school when political conversations arose, I would state smugly that I was not into current events. Unconscious of my contradictory behavior, I wrote papers on anarchy and chose Political Science as the first of several declared and discarded majors. As I grew as a photographer I became increasingly concerned with singular imaginative perceptions: illumination as it relates to private matters. But we live in dark times and the horrors of our century are senseless, routine and hidden.

Tomdispatch.com is the best site I've found on the subject of politics and the nature of power. Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture and The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books).

I discovered the website via a Facebook post by photographer and writer Michael Serra who posted a link to Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. I am a fan of Solnit who has authored over a dozen books including River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. Solnit writes regularly for Tomdispatch, as does linguist, political activist and luminary Noam Chomsky. In her review of Engelhardt's recent book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, Solnit praises Englehardt: "…his website or blog or postnewspaper wire service …have been one of the great forces on the side of clarity, democracy, openness, and really good writing. Tom himself, a legendary book editor, is also one of the country's most eloquent and tenacious political writers, electronically publishing three essays a week for all these years and writing many of them himself."

          "Eduardo Galeano, A Lost and Found History of Lives and Dreams (Some Broken)," by 
          Tom Engelhardt

          Tom Englehardt is also full of surprises. He introduces author Eduardo Galeano by way of a
          Tomgram titled, "A Lost and Found History of Lives and Dreams (Some Broken)." Galeano is
          author of Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, a history of humanity in 366 episodes; Memory 
          of Fire, Volume 3, part of a three-volume history of the Americas; Children of Days, described
          by Engelhardt as a kind of prayer book for our time. In the post he chooses 12 of his favorite
          episodes from Mirrors. Engelhardt describes Mirrors as one of the great books of this century.
          "Think of this post as a Galeano-esque mini-history of our last century of turmoil through a
          kaleidoscope of 'characters,' human and inanimate - and then get your hands on Mirrors and
          read the whole thing for yourself." In part, the episodes, remind me of  portions of John Dos
          Passos' USA, such as the description of Thomas Edison in 42nd Parallel. Until this post I was
          unaware of Galeano. After reading Engelhardt's introduction, "A Lost and Found History of
          Lives and Dreams (Some Broken), I immediately ordered all three of Galeano's books. Below
          is a small taste of Eduardo Galeano via excerpts from Tom Engelhardt.

          He pulled the trigger.          
          The gunshot did not kill him.          
          He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:          
          "You can’t even get that right."

           Father of the Computer
          At that point he had already dreamed up a prototype for an electronic computer and had laid 
          out the theoretical foundations of today’s information systems. Later on, he led the team that 
          built the first computer to operate with integrated programs. He played interminable chess 
          games with it and asked it questions that drove it nuts. He insisted that it write him love letters. 
          The machine responded by emitting messages that were rather incoherent.

          At the trial, Turing pled guilty to being a homosexual.
          To stay out of jail, he agreed to undergo medical treatment to cure him of the affliction. The 
          bombardment of drugs left him impotent. He grew breasts. He stayed indoors, no longer went 
          to the university. He heard whispers, felt stares drilling into his back.

          "Got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said. “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger."…

          Why are some walls so loud and others mute?

The Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg's and Oliver Chanarin with an essay by Adir Ophir

I purchased Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's  The Holy Bible at Printed Matters' NY Art Book Fair at PS1 in 2013. I knew that it had won accolades, so my first impulse was to view it skeptically. I opened it to several pages and felt a kind of terror and awe. I called a friend:
"I'm about to spend $80 on a book I've only looked at for two minutes.

The Holy Bible is one of the most rewarding book purchase I have made in a long time. It has a black cover with a gold embossed title that bears a deceptive resemblance to the King James version of the bible. Inside many of the text pages are overlaid with photographs selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict by the authors and the philosopher Adi Ophir who writes an essay for the book. The images often depict war and genocide and refer obliquely to particular words or passages underlined in red. The Holy Bible draws parallels between the violence of the bible, photography's preoccupation with catastrophe and the violence of the modern state. The juxtapositions are disturbing, sometimes weirdly comic, often horrible and horribly beautiful.

          "Divine Violence" by Adi Ophir (essay from The Holy Bible)

          "Right from the start, almost every appearance he made was catastrophic… Catastrophe is his
          means of operation, and his central instrument of governance."


Noam Chomsky: "The End of History? The short, strange era of human civilization would appear to be drawing to a close"

I first encountered Noam Chomsky as an undergraduate in a course titled Socio-Linguistics. While researching a paper, I found a book in which the author was attempting to apply Chomsky's generative grammar methods to various literary texts. I specifically remember referencing his analysis of portions of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The following semester I enrolled in Transformational Grammar. I had yet to declare a major but I had always been fascinated by grammar and the title mesmerized. It was a required course despised and dreaded by literature majors, but this did not deter me. It was much later that I learned that Chomsky was also a serious political activist. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy.  He also writes a monthly column for The New York Times News Service/Syndicate. "The End of History?" is  an omen and portent of a grave and calamitous future.

"Terror" by Vladimir Nabokov (begins on page 105 of the PDF through the link)

Daniel Bauer sent me this amazingly dense, heartbreaking, very short, short-story by Vladimir Nabokov. I passed it on to a friend who responded: "Holy shit!"

Vision Disorder Simulations

click on the above link or on the individual links below.

These simulations depict how our eyes see with different disorders. Our visionary expressions come from perceptions of the body.

  shows what the world might look like to a person with progressive symptoms of age-related macular degeneration
shows what the world might look like to a person with progressive symptoms of cataract
shows what the world might look like to a person with progressive symptoms of diabetic retinopathy
illustrates the three layers of the tear film and the cells that make them
shows the path of aqueous fluid, from its formation in the ciliary body through its exit from the eye
shows what the world might look like to a person with progressive symptoms of glaucoma
shows what the world might look like to a person with progressive symptoms of myopia

And finally,

"Lessness: A Story" by Samuel Beckett (1970)

I used this prose piece by Samuel Becket in a senior seminar. Most were bored and disinterested by the difficulty. I then asked the class to read "Lessness" out loud and all together many times over. Afterwards, bewildered and unnerved, we all somehow understood.

This dry and useful analysis was taken from the website above. "'Lessness' is a prose piece by Samuel Beckett in which he used random permutation to order sentences. Although 'Lessness' is linear prose, its orderly disorder calls for a reading process in which the reader works to untangle the threads of sameness and difference to discern the underlying structure, becoming aware of the usually unconscious processes of interpretation. Tightly interwoven contradictory perspectives drive the reader's attempts at reconciliation. The two halves of 'Lessness' are two of the 8.3 x 1081 possible orderings of Beckett's 60 sentences."