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John Sevigny: Pierre Toutain-Dorbec’s ‘Confronting the Past – The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Regime’

April 2, 2009

John Sevigny

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from Pierre Tortain-Dorbec’s ‘Confronting the Past – The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Regime

Centuries before anyone had ever dreamed of a camera lucida, centuries before National Geographic’s publication of Steve McCurry’s Afghan woman — probably the best known color photograph of the 20th Century — Diego de Velazquez, an ambitious Spanish court painter, was making portraits with a raw spontaneity, a clarity of vision and a range of psychological and emotional expression that few photographers could emulate today.

For decades, photographers were able to achieve almost Velazquez-style “emotional decisive moment” portraiture with surprising regularity. “Prince Gung,” an 1872 portrait by Scottish photographer John Thomson is but one example of what well-tuned portrait photographers have been able to produce. Gung, a Chinese prince, sits amidst huge stones that seem to speak to his power. It is a complex portrait in which the subject’s relaxed posture paired with his intense gaze toward the camera present a single expression of the comfort that comes with the arrogance of power.

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Twentieth Century critics have compared Velazquez’ oil paintings, particularly Las Meninas, painted in the late 1650s to “snapshots.” Given the fact that so many of those who sat for Velazquez seemed to have been smiling, frowning or posing just long enough to be painted, the comparison is a good one.

From his 1650 portrait of a consternated, almost constipated-looking Pope Innocent X, to his depiction that same year of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave and painter dressed as the artist’s equal with his head held regally high, Velazquez’ skill at portraiture is closer to witchcraft than painting. If anyone ever stole the souls of his subjects in order to apply them to canvas, it was Velazquez. We feel we know the people in his photographs. We are almost sure they look today exactly as they did when their likenesses were created with oil based paint and horsehair brushes inside a Spanish palace studio more than 400 years ago. Nobody could deny that the drunks in Velazquez’ Feast of Bacchus were real men who probably drank like merchant marines. They lean toward the proto-photographer, almost inviting us to join them.

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What seems improbable is that so few photographers today, benefiting from digital technology and the ability to create hundreds of images a minute, can do what Velazquez did in the 17th Century, or what Thomson did more than 200 years later.

Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, whose online exhibition at the Luminous-Lint Web site, Confronting the Past – The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Regime, provides powerful evidence – as if it were needed — that great photographic portraiture can give old master painters such as Velazquez a run for their money, and expose the falsely enigmatic, “empty glance” portraits that are so fashionable today for the artifice that they are.

“Straight” portraiture is one of humanity’s oldest art forms, with the first known example made 27,000 years ago on a cave wall in France. It’s also one of the easiest kinds of art to make. Nearly everyone in the modern world has portraits in their home and can make one, or a dozen, with a cell phone. Tiny children can make recognizably sad or happy faces with just a few lines.

But in spite of its democratic nature, portraiture is one of the most difficult art forms to “get right.” Looking at much of what early 21st Century photographers have to offer, you’d think they’d given up on the idea of eliciting something tangibly expressive from their subjects in favor of creating trendy but rarely successful representations of people who look like mannequins, digitally cleaned up, flawless, stripped of flesh, blood and soul.

It may seem a stretch to compare a 17th Century painter employed by a king to a 20th Century war photographer, but there is a thread connecting Toutain-Dorbec’s portrait work to paintings by Velazquez and work by others who strove to capture psychological and emotional depth in portraiture, to inject it with an almost mystical, human quality with the aim of converting pictures of people into works that can transcend the boundaries of time.

Richard Avedon spent a good part of his life chasing after that indescribable quality that shows not just any human being but an unmistakably specific one; that does something to close the space between the subject of a photograph and its viewer; and creates a transparency that renders the “sitter” psychologically naked. Avedon, a fashion photography veteran, found his muse in early 20th Century Austrian Painter Egon Schiele, who drilled straight for the hearts of the people he painted, and showed his viewers exactly what he found there, an undertaking that was dangerous enough to get the young Austrian briefly tossed in jail on obscenity charges in 1912.

Toutain-Dorbec, who comes from a family of painters and artists, began studying drawing and painting at the age of 12 at Paris’ Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He clearly understands the difference between a great portrait and a mere photograph of a human being.

In Karen Refugee, 1980, Toutain-Dorbec gives us an aging woman smoking a large cigarette or cigar standing in a primitive outdoor kitchen. She’s bone thin and her almost skeletal body is made up not of curves, but jagged lines that Schiele might have appreciated. Her face, moist with sweat, shows the toll of a difficult life, so difficult in fact, that she barely seems to acknowledge the fact that she’s being photographed, which is a traumatic experience for many people. Her head and face are veiled by a ray of stray light and smoke. She appears spent, with one hand on her hip behind her and the other holding the cigarette. None of Brazilian black-and-white master Sebastian Salgado’s socio-political ploys for sympathy are at play in the photograph. The refugee is simply who and what she is, and Toutain-Dorbec trusts us enough to allow us to make up our own minds about what he shows us.

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The strongest photographs in ‘Khmer Rouge Regime’ however, are group portraits. In Young Khmer Serei soldiers, 1979-1980, a row of four men in half-sitting positions lean forward on their rifles. The young man closest to the foreground appears distrustful of the camera, almost hiding behind his hand, which holds his rifle. His eyes are partially obscured by the brim of his hat. To his left and a little further back, is a younger soldier almost bemused by the presence of the camera. He seems to be fighting an urge to smile. Farther away still is an soldier with an almost feminine face, younger than the rest, offers up pure exoticism and an unexpected dose of innocence in a war-ravaged setting. The fourth soldier looks like the kind of guy who’d befriend you long enough to steal your wallet. He leans forward, almost eager to appear in the photograph. Gnarled, out of focus trees in the background add weight to the subjects, rendered in much higher contrast.

The enduring, near transcendental force of Toutain-Dorbec’s portraits, qualities found in work by Velazquez and Thomson is valuable to keep in mind in an era in which the photography market venerates the expressionless portraits of women by Magnum photographer Lise Sarfati, whose soccer moms appear too robotic to bear children, and choreographed photographs of Graham Miller’s “working men” who are so clean you can’t imagine they’ve worked a day in their lives.

Miller’s portrait of an aging, white man leaning on an old American car in front of a pawn shop aims, for example, seems too exemplify what’s wrong with much of contemporary photography. The photograph, posed to appear candid, aims to say something about the poor in the United States. But the man’s clothes are perfectly clean, right down to what look like just-off-the-rack jeans. A close look reveals that his windblown hair is actually sprayed frozen. Taken together with the perfect, cinematic balance of natural and artificial light used to create the portrait, what we get is MTV artifice, not a glance at a real human being or his plight.

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Toutain-Dorbec gives us the genuine article, and not just because his work is straight documentary photography. Like any painting by Velazquez, when we see a Toutain-Dorbec portrait, we know we’re looking at flesh and blood and something extra, something magical that draws us toward his subjects.

Velazquez was no war photographer and never painted anything as close to combat as Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s Executions of the Third of May, painted in 1815. Toutain-Dorbec is no royal court painter either. But in examining his portraits alongside those of Thomson and two Spanish masters, we are assured that the qualities that make for great portraits do not change with time, and that today’s trends in empty photographic portraiture are mere flashes in the pan of art history.

John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.

To read more blog entries from John Sevigny and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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