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 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 pinhole 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 pinhole 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.