Exhibition visit – Portrait of a century

First of all here is the guff as the exhibition blurb tells it – “Portrait of a Century is a photographic exhibition of one hundred images of people who are threaded together through a shared language, culture and nationhood. Presented for the first time in its entirety, each photograph represents the birth year of the person in it and the series as a whole spans a one hundred year time frame from 1916 to 2015. The exhibition is a photographic representation of a nation reflected in those who have shaped it in some way.

Between 2015 and 2016, photographer Kim Haughton sought out people who had a connection to Ireland. Starting with Ken Whitaker, born in 1916 during the rumblings of rebellion to Máire Mhac an tSaoi whose birth in 1922 coincided with the creation of the new state, she trained her lens on familiar faces of people who are woven into the fabric of the Irish arts as well as sporting legends, presidents, public servants, private citizens, pioneering women, dazzling young people and the children of the future to create this visual time capsule of a nation in transition.

Kim Haughton is an Irish photographer based in New York.  She completed her MA at London University of the Arts.  In 2015 she was named as an Irish photographer to watch by TIME magazine who described her work as ‘at once sparse and textured’.  She spent the early part of her career as a photo journalist covering post conflict humanitarian issues around the globe.  Her work has been exhibited in London, New York, Oslo and Dublin.  Her images have been included in publications worldwide, including The Financial Times, Der Spiegel and Vanity Fair.  Her work is held in the National Archives of Ireland.

Now – for my opinion, feeling, assessment of the exhibition and the work. It was very pleasant. I liked it – it was very professional and nice. I would imagine that from the 100 portraits, 50% were of famous people – Irish famous people – but Liam Neeson, a few presidents of Ireland, music stars, Paul McGrath the footballer – famous people.

For example, Kim’s photographic study of actor Gabriel Byrne was made in his New York apartment in 2015 while he was preparing for his role as James Tyrone in the play, ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’, on Broadway.

So the girl definitely had good access to some good people. The exhibition was displayed in some groups of images, some medium-sized single works, and some large scale works – why some pieces were clustered and others hung independently seemed a bit a random. To be honest the whole exhibition was a bit random. A random collection of styles. Tones were nice, images sharp, very pleasant. But nothing really of the people in the images, nor the photographer herself. They reminded me of images from a Sunday supplement – the celebrity image to go along with the main interview.

In an interview Haughton said, “I asked him (Byrne) where his favourite place to sit was and he motioned to the red velvet chair”. “During the portrait session we spoke to each other a lot.  “Normally I try to say very little but we strted a conversation about a photograph’s ability to create a truthful representation of the subject and what kinds of ethical considerations are made around that process.

“In portraiture, I look for that space between making a subject feel comfortable and capturing their true selves. This photograph was made during a pause in the conversation. He appears to be in deep contemplation. I felt he had a keen awareness and respect for the entire process.” Well it just didn’t really look like that. It looked like an actor being asked ‘to look thoughtful’ – I believe he definitely was aware of the process and like a good actor was able to turn it on when required. Everything was all a little obvious – President standing in front of presidential building – rock star sitting on the back of a sofa looking moody. Nothing wrong, just not especially interesting.

It would be interesting to note the restrictions she had placed upon her by the individuals. How much time she had, would they dress, sit, pose like she wanted then too. Maybe 100 images in 2 years was too much for one person. It would have been nice if she had given a little more of herself to the images. I don’t generally go in for the ‘capturing their true selves’ guff of a photograph – I am not even sure what our true selves is supposed to be – as if it is some constant – something that throughout our lives will somehow appear. Roland Barthes, in Death of the Author, argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of the author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. But to separate this body of work from the Sunday Supplement talking heads, then we needed to see some greater personal contribution from the author.



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