Review by Melanie Chapman •
As the saying goes: You can’t judge a book by its Cover. In the case of the new Thames and Hudson publication “Face Time: A History of the Photographic Portrait”, edited by Phillip Rodger, the cover itself agrees. Two youths are photographed with slight variations in perspective so that each looks directly at the viewer, but neither at the same time. By selecting Barbara Probst’s “Exposure #35 Munich Studio” to grace the cover of this excellent new collection, editor Prodger challenges assumptions about what constitutes a portrait while also commenting on the undeniable presence of the camera and how that alters any perception of an absolute photographic truth.
As the former head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Prodger is also a curator, author, and photography historian and possesses a great deal of expertise on this topic, which he generously shares with the willing reader. His vast knowledge on this topic is evident in the text accompanying each of the eight chapters focusing on topics such as formal portraiture, the influence of the selfie phenomenon, fashion, street photography and cinematic style narratives.
In his writing, Prodger tackles head on (pun intended) the veracity of portraiture: by looking at a photograph, can one truly “know” the subject or just what they looked like at that given moment, under those lighting conditions, in the presence of a particular photographer? In a recent interview with Lens Culture, Prodger said of humans that we are “just messy, organic beings, full of contradictions, uncertainties, inner thoughts and outer projections. Who we are is indefinable and unmeasurable.” How fortunate for us that he feels this way, as the collection of images he has assembled both fulfills and defies any preconceived ideas of what a portrait can be.
If you are knowledgeable about the history of photography, you might expect to find certain classic images by deservedly famous photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Eadweard Muybridge, Edwards Weston and Curtis, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Man Ray, Sally Mann… and you would not be disappointed. However, one of the most compelling aspects of this collection is the introduction of a number of photographers whose work you may have never seen before, be they contemporary or anonymous images from long in the past.
Prodger’s brilliant editing creates refreshing resonance to some of the more familiar images through sequencing that in some cases span decades and even centuries, offering the viewer visual conversations that will warrant many a revisit. The witty and insightful editing of the images is by far this reviewer’s favorite aspect of this excellent collection.
Along with the beautiful color printing and sensual tactile experience that are the hallmarks of Thames and Hudson publications, the editing of this photographic collection makes a convincing case for the value of physical books as a way to best discover and experience great photography.
Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and a Southern California photographer
Phillip Prodger (Editor), Face Time: A History of the Photographic Portrait
Multiple Photographers from 19th-21st Century
Edited and Texts by Phillip Prodger (born Margate, Kent, UK and resides New Haven, Connecticut)
Published by Thames and Hudson, London, copyright 2021
Hardcover, 240 pages, stitched binding, 255 illustrations, color and black and white, printed and bound in China by C &C Offset Printing Co, Ltd., ISBN 978-0500544914
Designed by Karolina Prymaka
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