Oh Christ Almighty!
This is not a blog on religion. Do read on.
Shall I leave it at that? It’s pretty much descriptive of my initial analysis of the latest bombshell that Sarah Dunn has dropped on us. What an image. Well, two images, of which I am only going to look at one although both elicited the same reaction from me. Because they contain something extremely beautiful: a handsome man who is laughing. Image 1 is gorgeous, but photographically not as deep a mine as Image 2. So picture 2 it is.
A very happy Richard Armitage photographed b/w. Dressed in a pair of denim trousers and an informal, dark shirt, Armitage is sitting on a large wooden box in a studio. There is a mottled grey background behind him, the box is placed in the centre of the image with Armitage himself assuming an informal pose: He has placed his bum on the top of the box and dangles his jean-clad legs diagonally off the box so that a corner of the box sits between his thighs. The sitter’s hands are gripping two diagonally opposite corners of the box. His torso is slightly inclined forwards, as are neck and head, so that the face is tilting down at an angle. The whole body is at a 20 degree angle to the camera towards our left.
What an image! It totally hits upon first sight, despite a couple of niggles. Not sure whether it is the cropping or the framing of the image, but the left foot has been cut off (not that anyone would notice…) and there appears to be a horizon line in the image – the backdrop meeting the floor? – that is not horizontal. But does that really detract? No. Because the image is perfectly lit, not too intense, and the light nicely catches the sitter’s face from his left but spills over far enough to reach over to the right, leaving the prominent nose of the sitter in sharp detail and brightening up the pearly whites.
What an image! If you look at the photograph with more than just the ovaries
– no judgment inferred; I frequently employ my reproductive organs for the sake of photographic appreciation – you will notice that it contains a very pleasing composition. RA has been placed in the centre of the image, with his head in the upper middle third. The vignetting (the shades of dark) in the upper left and right corners helps concentrate the viewer’s gaze onto the sitter in the centre, and mirrors nicely with the bits of dark floor at the bottom corners. There is a nice variety of grey tones in the image – from the brighter shades of white in the box via the mid-tone greys of the backdrop to the dark hair of the sitter – a tricky thing to achieve because b/w photography relies heavily on stark contrasts to offer a visual experience to the viewer. However, it is probably the great pose and the happy facial expression of the sitter that make the image so successful. The sitter appears relaxed yet not static, displaying the wares he is selling (yeah, we know that you know what you are selling, Richard) quite nicely: hairy forearms, thighs in tight jeans, and that gorgeous smile, even if that is not directed squarely at us.
What an image! My first thought – after beseeching the saviour to… well, to save me from short-circuiting my laptop due to excessive drooling – was “touch”. Eh, not as in “I want to touch you”
although: who am I kidding, I do, of course. But as in “moving” or “touched” as defined by Roland Barthes. This image somehow touched me, and I was reminded of what Barthes said in his 1980 reflections on photography, Camera Lucida:
“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”
And that is true of an image that hits deep. It is hard to explain rationally, this moment of being touched, and the reasons for being touched. Barthes distinguishes between two concepts of photographic effect. There is what he calls the studium, the objective interpretation of a photographic image based on available knowledge of culture, language/commmunication, politics etc. And then there is the punctum, the personally effective detail, the thing that actually touches, which relates directly to the viewer or which the viewer directly relates to; in internet speak “the detail that hits the feelz”. This is different for everyone, and for me it is the bare ankles of Armitage, his bare feet in his Chucks, and particularly the round ankle bone.
I cannot explain this fascination with bare male feet in shoes at all; I just know that I have a reaction to it. It is my punctum. And it makes me feel touched by this photograph, with a jolt of emotion somewhere between my heart and my belly, as if RA himself is reaching out of the photograph to poke me in the ribs. It is most probably also connected to the fact that this photograph is documentation that RA is real, was there. And despite the delay – after all this image must have been made some time in the autumn of 2013 – the radiance of the sitter tangibly moves me.
What an image! Now, there is no doubt that a happy smile will always be received positively as human interaction. Whether it is the toothless smile of a baby, the gorgeous grin of a beautiful adult or the toothless smile of a happy pensioner – we react to the signifiers of happiness and positivity. That is why we get so many smily pictures of celebrities. But not all of them produce a visceral reaction like this one. Why is this one more effective, especially considering the fact that the smile is not even directed at us and no gaze connects the sitter with the viewer?
This is where the concept of studium comes in. We know that this image was made by Sarah Dunn. And we have recently found out – from the horse’s mouth – that she is RA’s “old friend and favourite photographer”. (She shot one if not two of RA’s known headshots back in 2002; you can read my remarks on his headshots in my 2013 birthday post. OT: Not knowing about their long-standing friendship I singled out Dunn (and another female photographer) in my post last year “They have created interesting set-ups or POVs that stand out from the rest of the photography – i.e. Newman Williams black-on-black approach (a personal favourite of mine) or the mock-intimacy of the angle from above by Dunn. Notwithstanding the fact that there are no credits available for the early headshots, I find it interesting if not telling that the two most recent headshots were taken by women photographers.”
Self-reference over!) And so we know that there is a well-established connection between the photographer and the sitter. Which will be reflected in the resulting imagery, especially if the relationship is one of close friendship. Thus we interpret RA as being himself in the image: It is a snapshot of unposed life. It is the product of two collaborators who are having fun. You can see that the two people involved trust each other, can let go of pretense and timidity. (Conversely I am quite impressed that they are also able to reign in the friendly intimacy and be serious in order to produce the other, more polished and neutral shots – that is quite difficult to do when working with friends and having fun…)
Thanks to our studium we perceive in the image a notion of sincerity. And that is where the cookie crumbles: Apart from the punctum that may have hit us hard, the studium reveals that what has been caught on camera is *real*. By that I do not mean the proven existence of Mr A.
He exists alright – I saw him in the flesh, only last week *ggg*. But I mean the genuineness of the smile and the laugh. The notion of sincerity makes the picture more documentary in nature, it makes us empathetic to the depicted mood. We mirror the conveyed feeling, especially because it is a scene of joy, and switch off our unnecessary APM in regards to supposedly unloved modelling activities. In short, the notion of sincerity that is conveyed gives the image more authority and authenticity because we feel that it isn’t an act but it is *real*, the truth. And the idea of a genuinely happy sitter touches us radiantly and warmly.
What an image, indeed! A true smile-facilitator and joy-bringer. There is nothing better than witnessing happiness, and that is what this image does, it conveys relaxed, carefree happiness with the wide smile and the eyes closed in the exuberance of feeling. This – and the other smily happy picture – are easily the best ones I have seen from Dunn yet. Just because of their sincerity. While her other Armitage imagery is photographically flawless and polished, these hit much deeper and feel much more alive. There is notable emotion in them, something that is lacking in most of the other promo shots of RA, despite the evocative poses and the occasional smoulder. And that is probably also the reason why Dunn only released the images now: They were unusable for promo purposes because RA had his face turned down. The recognition factor for the general public (not the fangirls!!!) was too low. But even a year on and despite the current “period weird beard” look (where is that Hobbit promo picture, btw??) this picture is welcome. Better late than never. Thank you, Ms Dunn.
She was in the makeshift kitchen in the corner of the warehouse, rustling up a cup of tea for herself and her helper. Returning from the last trip down the ramp to the moving van, he stood in the middle of the floor, his gaze flickering over the empty space. “Ach, I’m exhausted”, he spat. “What the hell have you got in your boxes? Moving your stuff has really taken it out of me! I need to sit down.” She smiled at him and pointed at the last remaining box in the corner. “Why don’t you sit there?” He glanced at the wooden crate and quipped with a wink “Well, that is certainly thinking outside the box, but if you say so…” He moved languidly towards the box, then pulled it out from the wall and sat down on it, facing her, raking his hands through his hair and taking a breather.
She looked at him from across the room – and caught her breath. He looked delicious, with his shirt the exact shade of his dark hair, open at the collar and the sleeves casually rolled up to reveal his strong forearms. She could see the dark hairs standing out against the white skin of his forearms, the veins protruding slightly from the strain of having carried the boxes into the lorry. He was holding on to the box with his bum perched on the top and his legs open and dangling. She felt a shiver going down her spine. Her gaze skipped to the thighs straining against the confines of his tight trousers, and trailed further down his legs. When she reached the end of the denim garment, she choked on the swig of tea she had just taken in order to hide behind the steaming mug.
“Are you alright, luv?” he asked in a concerned voice, moving forward as if to get up. She hurriedly waved him off to indicate he needn’t get up. She felt the blood draining from her face. He was not wearing any socks in his Chucks!!! “No, stay on the box!”, she replied hoarsely, trying to catch her breath. “I don’t like to get up on a soap box, but is everything ok, though?”, he insisted, with a concerned but cheeky grin. “You look a bit pale.” She nodded vigorously. “I’m very ok. I am just enjoying the view from over here. You’re grand. In fact you are ticking all the boxes!” She blushed and threw her hand across her mouth. But he laughed out loud, throwing his head back and then leaning forward with a wide grin. What an image! “Boxing day has come early!!!”, she thought with a grin…