13 April 2013

Portraits from the past

In the article, Denis Healey talks about Thatcher. But what caught my interest wasn’t the subject — neither Healey nor, most definitely, the odious Thatcher — but Kalpesh Lathigra’s photograph of Healey. Dull, desaturated, drab, without a single strong or even definite colour, so flat that the light struggles to cast a decent shadow — and brilliant. I don’t need to read the article to get a sense of who Denis Healey is; in fact, I suspect this might be the kind of photograph that says more about its subject than the subject understands about himself.

Open-necked shirt held captive by a woolly jersey; corduroy jacket an olive colour (if colour can be the right word for such a non-colour in such an uncolourful photograph) and apparently — and worryingly — identical to one I still own; a chin almost receding, although that might be an illusion created by the wattles, fleshy and stretched, connecting the chin to the neck and throat; nostrils choked with chopped-off nose-hair — and those eyebrows. Exuberant and wiry, they seem connected to a separate part of the brain not owned by Healey but by the eyebrows themselves. They seem, it might be said, to have a mind of their own; even, perhaps, separate minds for each eyebrow. The right eyebrow sits luxuriant above the strongest feature of the whole portrait: the right eye, with its small black pupil focused on a thought elsewhere, proving once and for all that great portraits do not need to stare down the viewer. The left eyebrow, on the other hand, seems intent on escaping from the photograph, pouring down off the brow and across the eye, which consequently can’t be seen clearly beneath the torrent of wiry hair; an eyebrow constituting a different kind of comb-over.
The mouth: a line, inscrutable. A first look suggests the idea of an impish smile; look longer and the impishness recedes, to be replaced by a grimace that might be resignation or even a trace of bitterness. Perhaps the mouth expresses all these things at once. I wish I were as good at multi-tasking.

Of course, I have no idea how well the photograph portrays Healey. In fact, I keep getting the uneasy feeling that it’s a better portrayal of E.O. Wilson, and that might be part of its appeal. What it does do indisputably, however, is portray a person, and therefore it can be considered a portrait — to my mind, a brilliant one. But don't take my word for it. Go and see for yourself.

Photograph: Tuatara at Pukaha Mt Bruce, 13 January 2008.
All content © 2013 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

Brilliant! Your word portrait does great justice to the photographic, and the Tuatara to both.
What an interesting week is in store for us!

Zhoen said...

Your description of this photo proves you are as skilled with words as with a camera.

butuki said...

Had a good laugh at this whole portrayal. I think people forget sometimes that the inner dialogue they hold with themselves about who they are doesn't necessarily translate to the physical manifestation their bodies choose instead to reveal. Your description brings alive a remarkably animated face!

E. O. Wilson... aye. He was one of my heroes until, while living in Boston and three years into seeking some kind of work that would allow me to be involved with nature writing or directly with the natural world, and being completely unsuccessful, I called him up to politely ask him about any possible leads he might have. His immediate response? "Who the hell are you? Get the hell off my phone, and never call back! Damn parasite!" And he hung up.

After having read all his books, including the bits about having been treated badly when he was young and his feeling it was necessary to show respect to people and help them reach their dreams, I was shocked. His literary views on life reflected much of my own childhood, and I felt very similarly about a lot of his ideas and contemplations. But this? I never wanted to read anything by him again. And whenever I see him on TV or in a documentary and hear him talk about being kind to people, I guffaw and switch the channel.

Maybe he was having a bad day.

pohanginapete said...

RR, Zhoen: thanks for the encouragement :^)

Miguel: that certainly alters my perception of Wilson. I had a similar experience quite a few years ago with one of the "grand old men" of NZ science. I needed to ask his opinion for a report I was writing, and had to endure a grilling about my background, credentials, etc before he'd even listen to my questions. I like to believe I handled it well (I did eventually get enough information, albeit grudgingly), but I can't imagine getting anywhere with a response like Wilson's.

If I ever respond like that, I've learned nothing.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Thatcher's era was probably the last, and only, time that everyday people could name almost the entire cabinet and it's good to see that Healey's eyebrows are still living a life of their own

certainly the picture does give an impression of a grey old man, but like the wildly differing opinions of his former boss i do wonder how fair this is (see my post on Thursday 11th for my thoughts)

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, the problem with all portraits is that it's impossible to know how accurately they convey a sense of the person. People are complex: a portrait that portrays the politician (and even then, perhaps just one or a few aspects) might utterly fail to portray the same person as a mum or dad; a portrait of an old man probably fails completely to portray the person as a young man, and so on. In this case, I think it's a brilliant photograph; whether it's a brilliant photograph of Denis Healey is another question.

Thanks for the thoughts :^)