Emergency *ooof*: Dignity

Just before my photographer brain kicked in – which was pretty quickly – my first, split-second thought was a memorable thought line from Bridget Jones. I am not going to quote, suffice to say it was an exclamation of surprise. No, I immediately inwardly screamed “Gonnord”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And yes, this is Pierre pure Gonnord. How pure, I will show you later on, let’s have a proper look first, with the customary image description to kick off with.

Proctor Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in a promotional poster for the Old Vic’s production of The Crucible, 2014

A portrait of an angry man. Pictured in a mixture of half-length and head-and-shoulders, Armitage is in character as John Proctor, the male lead of The Crucible. He is dressed in a black woollen coat with upturned collar and wide lapel, a scarf knotted around his neck and just visible in the open front of the coat. Armitage is looking directly at the camera. His body at a 40 degree angle, he has turned his head at about 80 degrees, creating visual tension between the angle of his body versus his face. The background consists of a graphite grey, mottled backdrop; a faint shadow obscures the bottom edge of the image. In conventional portrait style, the head of the sitter takes centre-stage – figuratively speaking. It is of course in the middle one of the upper thirds, if you were to draw imaginary grid lines over the image – a classic example of where a portrait format image puts the emphasis.

The emphasis is further heightened by the lack of colour in the image. The black costume and the grey backdrop create a dark foil from which the face stands out. And even the make-up design has been adjusted to this reduced visual aesthetic by applying dark smudges to the face, making the sitter look dirty, as if covered in soot. For those in the know it already invokes the stench of burning flesh and the flickering light of burning fires. Skin, lips and irises are the only visible colour in this image, attracting the attention of the viewer and focussing the gaze. The strong line of the nose leads the gaze up to the whites of the eyes, the faint pink of the lips competing. *All* happens in the face, or more specifically the eyes. And the effect is visceral: there is fury, aggression, but also a sense of what is so beautifully expressed in the German word “Ohnmacht” – literally “without-power”, so “non-power” in the sense of being conscious of one’s own inability to change anything or to react adequately. Incidentally that “Ohnmacht” in the sense of “fainting” applies to me, too, when I look at this image… UNF. And I don’t even like beards…

Illuminated from the left (our POV), the light catches the right side of the sitter’s face completely, casts only little shadow on the side of the nose on the left, but falls off on the line from forehead angle down the cheekbones. This, however, emphasises the contours of the face and adds a three-dimensional feel to the image. The pose to me has a slight fleetingness to it – maybe because I cannot see his hands, I imagine him walking by, turned away, then looking back in anger, his head held up straight, his gaze unflinching but full of almost tangible emotion.

But most remarkable about this image is of course the facial expression. Mr A is strongly in character – as would be expected in an image used for the promotion of a theatre play. The promotional poster is meant to convey the essence of the play – or at least inspire curiosity in the casual viewer with allusions to the content and message of a drama. That excludes all of us, dear readers, as we all know we are not casual about the subject of the photograph but rather affected… Sure, we would all agree that this is an unmissable play. Possibly for the wrong reasons *ahem*. And this is what we see: A fierce, unflinching gaze, straight into the lens. The rage, the anger, a soupcon of accusation are almost palpable in this look. As a viewer I almost feel like mechanically taking a step back to avoid the release of the pent-up anger that is flashing from this unrepentant, wrathful gaze. There is lightning in those eyes, electricity that charges the space between me and the image with aggressive, hot energy, and hits me with full-on emotion that is hard to ignore. The rawness of the unfiltered anger.  This tense rage is emphasised by the resolutely closed mouth. There is a trace of a pouting lower lip, hinting at a sense of injustice, unfairness, but more strikingly the down-turned corners of the mouth. Although the downturned mouth is possibly a trick of the light: The light doesn’t reach quite under the upper lip and the moustache, creating a bow-shaped shadow that indicates a mouth stretched into an expression of resolute defiance.

What does this expression convey to someone who is unfamiliar with The Crucible? Mere aggression, or a more nuanced communication of defiance, disbelief, determination, resolution and anger? When we look at this image and consciously or subconsciously interpret what we see, we do so with our knowledge of the context. We know too much about this play to interpret the image neutrally. We know about Proctor’s struggle with truth, and how he is forced to decide between integrity and bare survival. And we are quick to declare in wonder and admiration how amazing it is that someone can convey so much with one look… I like to think that the message of the image is something else – something that seems almost identical to an image by an art photographer who immortalised the marginalised and unwanted in his oeuvre.

You may possibly have come across Gonnord’s name before, fairly recently. A tweet by the costume designer of the The Crucible a few of weeks ago featured a photo of a pile of photo books. Among them, clearly visible, was Pierre Gonnord’s PHotoBolsilio. Interestingly (and perhaps almost a tiny bit unoriginally?) the look, style and pose of the Old Vic image is a near-identical copy of a Gonnord image, right down to the black scarf on Armitage’s neck. (Please click the link – the similarity is astonishing!) Gonnord photographed the marginalised of society: the homeless, the gypsies, the outcasts. Always in front of a black background, with one light, illuminated from the left. His sitters are sometimes dressed in black, often historicised costumes, sometimes topless. The emphasis in his images is *always* on the life of his sitters as it has been etched in their faces – lines, scars, wrinkles, warts and all. They are amazing faces. Raw life, really. But the unifying characteristic of all Gonnord’s images is the amazing, unflinching dignity with which he represents the sitters. Gazes that connect straight through the lens with the viewers. There is no shame, no fury, no defiance, but the pure dignity of people whose lives have been loosened by the unpredictability of fate. Every face is a life, and every line in it tells a story.

This art project is not condescending, patronizing or voyeuristically victimizing the sitters. It is not a freak show. While looking almost pictorial in style – Rembrandt comes to mind – the images of Gonnord are about contemporary people and contemporary stories. Their lives on the margin of society have created these remarkable faces. Faces that we ignore when we pass them by on the street – not bothered to look, or embarrassed to acknowledge that something may be wrong with a society that allows marginalisation. Gonnord does not get into the details of their stories. He merely lets the faces speak through the lines, the weather-beaten skin, the warts, the scars, the clouded eyes, the wrinkles. They look like people from a different time – and yet they are now. Universal.

There is a similar intention behind The Crucible. It is a play that is made to *look like* a glimpse in the past, and yet it is strongly contemporary, both as in: contemporary of the time it was written in, as well as in the universal validity of its message. Dignity is a central issue in The Crucible, as Proctor struggles between the easy way out (by confessing to a sin he has not committed but which would save his life) and his self-respect and integrity (by insisting on the truth – which would cost him his life). And beside the anger and defiance, there *is* indeed dignity in the Old Vic image: Proctor is holding his head up, he is not bowing down (yet), his shoulders are not hunched in submission but decidedly straight, his spine is strong – not with pride but with the sense of  his inherent dignity and integrity.

If you feel that this image looks like a painting, you are on the right track. The black background, the lighting and the pose in the style of Gonnord support this assumption. Gonnord and many other art photographers (check out Hendrik Kerstens’ wonderful – and amusing! – photographs  of his daughter Paula. Straight out of a Rembrandt painting. Just google his name in image search and look very closely!) use what is known as “Rembrandt lighting”. Set in front of a black background, they photograph their sitters with a keylight, strongly directed at the sitter from the left, occasionally flagged or complemented with a fill light. The keylight illuminates one half of the sitter’s face from the left, and leaves the other side almost in shadow, except for a small triangular area that reaches the eye and cheek. You only need to google Rembrandt to see what I mean. (Interestingly – there is a reason why most of the Rembrandt-style paintings were illuminated from the left (of the painter). If the painter was right-handed, he positioned his model and his easel in such a way that the light would hit his canvas from the left – avoiding the creation of shadow by his painting hand…)

What a wonderful character study. An image that speaks loudly – without (much) colour, without props and accessories, without action. In the stillness of the pose, the eyes communicate loudly. This is not a play about aesthetics or beauty. It is about dignity, it is a raw look at life, and the imagery created for the poster is capturing that painfully clearly.

Forgive me for attaching an *ooof*let to such a serious post – but this was actually my first association…

Weekend! Rehearsals over and done for the week, he had a few things on his list – get home quickly, pick up a bottle of red on the way, to help him learn his lines, then reward himself by a little stint on the internet, checking the sales of his latest audiobook (he might bump them up with a little review on amazon under a false name, making sure the spell check was activated and none of his characteristic typos slipped through. Really, his well-wishers were far too observant), followed by a little bask in Social Media glory under the Richard Armitage tag. Let’s get out of here, and quick.

Despite the approaching summer it had been chilly out, the last few days. He pulled on his woollen coat in a hurry and slung a black scarf around his neck. It was essential to keep his vocal chords well insulated. Only three weeks until show-time. The beard was actually great for that, too. With a quick wave to his colleagues, he was out of the dressing room and on the way.

He enjoyed the anonymity of the metropolis. He still felt more or less unrecognised in the crowd, and so decided on the tube as his preferred mode of transport this early evening. Brandishing his oyster card, he made his way into the underbelly of London, his legs automatically finding the way to his usual spot on the platform. Hells bells, it was busy. A whole group of young people occupied the platform. French students on a class excursion, by the sound of them. He stepped into the carriage of the arriving tube, the students piling in behind him. He closed his eyes and leant back against the carriage door as the train started to move.

Suddenly he felt a tickling sensation on his face. Blinking fast he opened his eyes, only to catch a blushing girl averting her eyes quickly. The carriage was abuzz with the excited chatter of the students in a strange mixture of French and the odd English word thrown in. “Tonnerre de Brest“… “vegetarians”… “fuzzy wuzzy”… “mille sabords“… “abominable snowman”… Really, it was too funny what people were talking about. “… thundering typhoons…”. He caught the blushing girl whisper loudly over the train sounds to her giggling friend. Oh right, they had recognised him from his upcoming tornado disaster film. He sighed. To be expected. Into fan encounter mode, Armitage, he reminded himself as he stretched his spine and stood back from the door. He plastered a friendly smile on his face, signalling that he had caught them catching him and encouraging them to ask for the customary selfie.

“Can we take a photo with you?” the blushing girl timidly yet struggling to suppress a grin came forward. “Sure of course”, he automatically obliged. The giggling friend sidled up to him and grinned into the camera. “Regarde“, the friend piped up. “Souris a le Capitaine!” “Oui. Billions of blistering barnacles!” her friend grinned. His head popped up with a jolt. As he turned his head to see his reflection in the carriage door he was faced with Captain Haddock. Grim. Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles, indeed…

~ by Guylty on May 31, 2014.

55 Responses to “Emergency *ooof*: Dignity”

  1. Loved loved loved this ooof! Linked to it on my blog post. And please keep doing the ficlets. They are a delightful capstone to each image analysis.

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    • I agree. Captain Haddock is a great counterpoint to intensely grim and angry JP. This photo, although perfect to promote a serious play, reminds me too much of Mr. Jones giving me his “What do you mean there’s nothing for dinner?” face. Chilling.

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    • Thanks, Grati, for comment and link! Initially I actually did not want to add a ficlet at all because I felt it was inappropriate to mock the image after my “dignity” sermon, but in the end, it forced itself on me…

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  2. Me too. And loved the link to Gonnord – wow. The Rembrandt lighting is fascinating, too.

    If that black coat is costume I think I’m going to love it, too… 🙂

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    • I am with you – the black coat looks like a great choice. But what I forgot in my previous comment: it’s always a funny treat to imagine him lurking through social media or even push reviews with fake accounts :D. Wonder if he’s got the time for it … And hope he doesn’t …

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    • Gonnord’s images are just amazing. It’s an exemplary photo project, really – that marries fantastic photography with the stories behind each image. Wonderful portraits.

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  3. How do you manage to get your oofs up in time and to the point like this?! So entertaining and thoughtful although I have to admit I don’t know Tintin and Cpt. Haddock blushes. But thumbs up for your ficlet!

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    • Many thanks, Nell. Writing about photography comes pretty easily to me. In this case, I was already familiar with Gonnord’s work from my time in college, plus I had revisited his oeuvre at the beginning of the month when the costume designer’s tweet popped up. Mind you – yesterday it did take me seven hours from discovering the image until finalising the ooof. I preferably write in the evening or at night, when the family has gone to bed, and my creativity is at its peak. It did help that it was a Friday night and I didn’t have my usual 6 am early start for the next day looming over me…
      Never mind Tintin – I know, he’s mainly a French/Belgian phenomenon, which is why I had to think up a group of French students as the foil to the oooflet 😀

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  4. What a great ooof! I learned a lot and yes, dignity describes it perfectly. Both the model and the photographer nailed it. /Haddock had me giggling!/

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    • The dignity epithet was what I took from Gonnord. There is always a huge danger with photo projects about the marginalized that the images veer into voyeurism or pity. Gonnord totally nailed that with his series without taking away from the message. It just exemplifies that a picture says more than a thousand words.

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  5. Thanks, Guylty- so informative with all the Gonnord detail to set the image in photographic context. What are the particular challenges here, in creating just the right image to advertise the play- would the director be on hand with her input do you think, or would RA be given a brief as to what’s required, and the photographer keeps clicking until that perfect facial expression emerges ?

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    • Very difficult to say, Katharine. My hunch is that the director certainly has input into the design of the promo imagery; after all it is her interpretation of the play that is being staged and advertised. I imagine that it is a collaborative process in which ideas are bounced back and forth between director, photographer, creative director, production designer (depending on whether the theatre has such). No idea as to who has final say.
      I don’t think that the actors have that much input, apart from obviously acting their role for the shots. I am pretty sure they would’ve informed RA what the intention/message of the shot is, i.e. “We want Proctor to look fierce and undefiant in this image, show his ugly (hehe – FAIL), yet impotent rage”.
      There’s no doubt that there are plenty of images resulting from this session, probably with a variety of facial expressions. The final editing is probably done by the creative director without any input by the actor, possibly even without input of the photographer who may have just submitted his pre-selection of useable images.

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  6. I agree with you, angry, and also fear….

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  7. Thanks for the links to Gonnord. What a great ooof !
    You made me laugh with Cpt Haddock – A bit more about him: http://e.tintin.tk.free.fr/insultes.htm or : http://www.echolalie.org/wiki/index.php?ListeDesJuronsDuCapitaineHaddock

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    • Thank you Lady Butterfly! Was my French correct, by the way? I was not quite sure what the imperative of sourire was… I actually consulted a French grammar site 🙂 and then I winged it… And btw, I love all the Haddock insults – so funny…

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  8. […] A lire Excellents blogs de Servetus et Guylty Pleasure […]

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  9. Super interessant. Da habe ich doch echt was über Rembrandts Technik gelernt . Und jetzt kenne ich Gonnord auch 🙂
    Das Ficlet ist wirklich fein.

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  10. Guylty- wow. I’m always amazed at how much you pull out of these images of which I am completely unconscious (not being an extremely visual person), yet which clearly contribute to the gestalt (of which I AM very conscious). The element of helplessness was something I hadn’t picked up, but it’s clearly there. In addition to the belligerence (as if to say “what are you looking at??”), I sense an undertone of disgust…. as if he’s offended even to have the viewer’s eyes touching him. I’m both drawn and repelled… even threatened (imagining if in person). And love the ficlet, as always… I too think that he may be more web-savvy than he lets on (i.e. “I’m not sure I know what a meme is”. Thanks again for pulling all this together, including Gonnord, who was new to me.

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    • Hi SH, thank you for your long comment! – I look at images every day. My own, other photographers’, advertising, art. Since this is a subject I studied in college, I can delve in and pull out the names and projects of photographers – it comes with the job. I am sure you are doing that in your line of work, too 🙂 And Gonnord was one of the photographers I studied in college.
      I like your point about the disgust, and I had actually been tempted to put that in there, too. There is almost a sneer on his mouth (I remember looking up the definition of sneer and smirk last night. Long live leo.dict.org :-D)
      As for the web-savviness – I hope that includes staying away from stuff about himself, actually. 😀

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      • But even if he stays away from stuff about himself – he doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’m sure some of his friends check from time to time what’s up in Armitage-Kingdom.

        I’m also sure he has heard every possible silly comment about an army of women. “Hey, Rich. Your Army, do you think they’re like the Amazons? – Hope they haven’t removed one of their t*ts! Muahahaha!”

        sigh The poor man. ggg

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        • Possibly, yes. Let’s hope those friends do not inform him en detail… ggg
          The “Army” adage is a tough one. Who knows, maybe his friends call him “The General” for a nickname, or they salute him and click their heels every time he enters the room? Well, Richard, that’s the price you pay ggg. I hope he just giggles about it, and continues to joke and insinuate. I find it quite funny when he teases us – despite the attempts of interviewers to embarrass him with his “Army”…

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        • I’ve wondered about that occasionally myself…. although I’d think he wouldn’t get any worse ragging about his army than Ben C would about his “Cumberbitches”. Seriously! (And yow…. glad we’re NOT Amazons, that’s a tough entry process!)

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  11. Thanks for mentioning Hendrik Kerstens. I hope more people will do a google search. Very amusing! 🙂

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    • Isn’t it? I couldn’t resist throwing him in. I totally loved that project – and at first sight I didn’t even realize what was going on. Shows you how fleeting our gaze is, and how indoctrinated we are by art when we think our expectations have been met…

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      • Yes, at first there’s just a feeling that something looks a little weird. Then you realise what he did. 😀

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        • 😀 You are really good, Igelchen, for not putting any spoilers in here. Let’s hope this drip-feeding of hints pays off…

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          • ggg Hedgehogs are really good, didn’t you know?

            Learn from it! Next time you want to show something put a link in. Copy & paste is too much work.
            🙂

            Have a nice evening. exits stage left, no, right, noooo! falls off

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            • Hehe, I didn’t want to overburden the post with too many links. Plus, it was a complete aside. But if I catch even just one, my work here is done.
              Have a nice evening, too! ❤

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  12. G- I realize this is all simply like a part of you, but I enjoy learning about it and appreciate having a chance to look through eyes not my own. And I agree, I hope he has reached the point of pushing away from his own press….. most celebrities seem to end up there to keep their sanity, and I’d bet he has by now.

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    • I probably sounded really dismissive. There is a visual language that we all speak, much of it even across cultures and spoken word, but some of us are more fluent then others, and I suppose it is good to have it translated, sometimes.
      I think he took a step away from his own press years ago. And his fan communication has certainly also become more distant (which is fair enough. Not complaining) than it was before. I can live with that. In fact, it makes it easier to do what I want to do and express in this pastime.

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      • No, not dismissive at all! Everybody tends to take their own skills and gifts for granted- in my case, reading music and typing are part of me, and it requires conscious awareness to move closer to ground level. (I’m the one in the house who usually says “just gimme your laptop” instead of watching them painfully hunt and peck).

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  13. One word – Wow!

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  14. It doesn’t even feel like a photograph. I keep thinking it’s a painting.

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  15. I appreciated hearing about what makes this picture like Gonnord — but, okay … so my issue is that John Proctor wasn’t really a marginalized person, either in history, or in the play. Which makes me really wonder what this version of the play is going to look like!

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    • I think they were only interested in the aesthetics of Gonnord’s project, not the project itself. You could possibly find a tenuous connection between Gonnord’s marginalised and the production of TC in the way Armitage described it: a pictured of a “heated society where human beings are incredibly cruel to each other” — i.e. marginalising each other for things that happened to them.

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  16. Very powerful picture.

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  17. I don´t know if any comment of me makes sense, after all what has to be said was mentioned above…
    “Gonnord”, yes I was never aware of him, until the mention of the product designer some weeks ago.
    Your insights on the photography are still as great as always, details I would never recognize.
    Don´t stop the oooflet, even it´s a serious theme we need to enjoy… I can well remember the “Tim und Struppi”-comics in my childhood, but the conjunction to Captain Haddock is hilariuos 🙂

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    • I suspect the oooflets get more attention than the photography crap 😀 But that’s fine, I am quite happy to be read for any reason…
      “Tim und Struppi” – yes. Is Capt Haddock called the same in German?

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  18. […] is my current favourite in terms o artistic impression and from my POV as a photographer/fan. The first image is too obviously copied (plagiarised???) from Gonnord for my taste, even though it conveyed the […]

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