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