Are Dunn and Armitage alternating with their “gifts” to the
world fandom? After the Young Minds tweet selfie (typical smartphone fare, I’m afraid, not worth *ooof*ing – sorry, Rich :-P) we get a new Thorin image by Sarah Dunn – well, as I am writing this it is two weeks exactly until the world premiere of The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies, so some Thorin is timely. And after Armitage messing with his fans’ heads teasing (#whatreallyhappenstoThorin), the latest image of the mighty dwarf king will keep us guessing a little bit longer. Why I think so, you will find out later in this analysis. But for the start let’s have a look at the image as such.
Thorin sits in armour and ceremonial robe, raven crown on his head, sword by his side and shield at his feet. I like to approach a picture analysis by noting how my gaze goes over the image. You may wonder how this works and whether there is any definite guide to it. There isn’t of course, as we all have our own visual triggers and preferences. But it is fair to say that there are a few logical and typical components in any image that will guide any viewer’s gaze. My initial contact with the image is via Thorin’s head. I search for the face, and specifically the eyes in an image – because that is how humans establish rapport and connection of any kind, no matter whether in RL or within a picture. From there, it is the sharp contours of the sitter standing out against the background, lines formed by clothing or body, and especially bright or dark parts of the image that will attract and guide my gaze.
In this image, from Thorin’s right eye my gaze is guided down along the strong ridge of his right leg armour to the top of his toe-caps. Next my gaze flickers to his right forearm, guided by the vertical line of the sword. The bright reflection on the sharply angular armour of his left forearm attracts my attention next, and is neatly guided along right forearm first, then the belt, to be met with the pointing index finger and finally arriving at the brightly reflecting armour. Lastly, I follow the line of Thorin’s left leg down to the shield at his feet. For me, two sight lines matter most – the initial vertical from eye to toe, and then the horizontal from hand to elbow. If you follow the description you will find that the gaze makes the sign of the cross. Interesting. However, secondary sight lines are in the picture as well, where the fall of Thorin’s robes stands out against the background on the left and right (yellow lines). Once my brain had taken all this in, I found my gaze flickering between Thorin’s head at the top and the round-ish shape of the shield at the bottom, though, something that will inform my interpretation of the image later in my ficlet .
What I find most pleasing about the composition, however, is the tight and symmetrical arrangement of a seemingly asymmetrical pose within the frame. If you were to draw a square onto the image (white lines), all of Thorin would perfectly fit into it – and look how neatly his head meets the middle of the upper edge while his robes touch the two bottom corners of the square. However, cropping the image into square format would feel like boxing the sitter in – he needs space at the top and the bottom as balance, and to relieve the eye from the attention-demanding content within the imaginary square. Therefore a final image in portrait orientation is only logical.
As a photographer I am *always* concerned with the lighting in a studio generated portrait. And I can tell that Dunn had her work cut out here. The keylight (= main light) seems to come from the right (our perspective), indicated by the strong reflection on the armour on Thorin’s left forearm, as well as on the left side of his face, which is closest to the keylight. The keylight does not quite reach the side of his face that is most visible to us. However, it is not completely dark, either, indicating that there must have been a fill light from another direction, most likely above head, possibly slightly to the right (indicated by the shadows). This is also why some other angular parts of the armour are lit up even though the keylight cannot possibly reach there. (There may also be a back light used, although the image appears quite vignetted – usually a sign that no back light was used to light up the background – but that may be a post-produced effect.)
Dunn has managed the lighting really well because what she was given was very demanding: Thorin is dressed in a variety of garments with very different textures. There are the soft textures of the fur and the cloak as opposed to the metallic, smooth surfaces of the armour. Photographing reflective surfaces is very difficult because it can result in unsightly glare and strong reflections in the wrong places, taking away from the *really* important bits of an image. The Weta Design Dept. has not made this easy for Dunn – Thorin’s armour is extremely difficult to photograph with its many ridges and angles. No matter which way you angle the light, glaring reflections are unavoidable thanks to the cubist, multi-sided look of the dwarfish design language. In this case, you’d probably want to light the armour with some soft light from the side in order to catch some of the sharp ridges while avoiding glare and deep shadow. The textures of the soft fur and fabric on the other hand are better lit with a direct light source which makes the structure of the material stand out (due to the shadows that are created).
Dunn combines the two (although I think the fur and the afghan ripples of the cloak appear a bit flat) by lighting the sitter from above (-right). The three-dimensionality of the fur is actually better captured on Thorin’s left shoulder where individual hairs stand out brightly when they are caught in the direct light from the side. (Compare the two shoulders and see what you think – which side appears more three-dimensional to you?) Interestingly she chooses to light Thorin with rather harsh light from his left. Unusual, because humans
and dwarves by extension tend to look better in soft light especially women *ggg*, and metal is usually also photographed with diffused light. As a result Thorin’s face, where it is closer to the sidelight, is caught very brightly lit, if not overexposed, and the armour on his forearm produces a glaringly white reflection. Focusing on Thorin’s right eye she probably had to do that, though, in order to make the otherwise shadowed half of his face visible. Photoshop has probably helped a good bit, too, lighting up the shadows.
But these are the technicalities that photo nerds get caught up in. For the general viewer, the meaning and interest of the portrait is in its composition and the associations it is so obviously trying to evoke. Even without the crown on the sitter’s head we would know that this is a very regal scene, not just because it depicts a character which we know to be a king, but more so because of the full ceremonial get-up that Thorin is dressed in. Almost everybody is familiar with the famous paintings of the rulers of the past, and this photograph of Thorin fits right into what we identify as typical portraits of rulers and sovereigns.
But does it? My initial reaction to the image was “gorgeous, but pity about the neutral background”. And this first-contact reaction points already at an interesting contradiction to traditional sovereign portraiture. A little excursion into art history:
Portraiture of rulers and sovereigns through the history of art has always sought to do one thing: Such portraits seek to establish the position of the depicted ruler in society and in history, his function, and his right to rule. If we take the classical sculpture of the Romans as an example of early sovereign portraiture (hello Obscura!!!), it becomes clear that the psychology and/or the representation of the in my ruler as an individual is secondary – if not undesirable. (Click here for the sculpture of Emperor Augustus as an example.) Early sculpture visualizes the power, sovereignty and leadership of the ruler. To us such portraiture often appears haughty and arrogant. There are no individual characteristics, the rulers are depicted in stylized, idealized form. They are meant to appear powerful, sometimes god-like, always statesman-like. Their facial expressions reflect their superiority and intelligence (regardless of the reality, of course), not their real, individual character.
This lack of individuality is even more pronounced in medieval portraiture of sovereigns. Partly that is due to the (comparatively) regressed artistry of medieval painters. But mostly it stems from a different focus on sovereignty as a god-given right. It is not an achievement, but a gift of the bloodline. (See a picture of Richard the Lionheart as a typical example here.) It is only in the Renaissance that sovereign portraiture becomes more focused on the individual. The characteristics of the individual ruler are recorded in the paintings, even though they remain highly stylized. The portrait of Richard III is a well-known example.
Later sovereign portraiture of the absolutist period (18th century), however, has firmly imprinted on us what we think royal portraits should look like. Is there anyone who does not know the famous portrait of Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil? There is a definite reference back to classical sculpture in terms of pose and statesman-like posturing, but at the same time an almost medieval anchoring in the symbolism that surrounds the actual representation of the king: The opulence of the full coronation regalia is meant to impress and awe. The background with classical pillars, and velvet/silk canopy puts the 18th century monarch on par with ancient rulers. The insignia, the precious materials, the pose, the visual context is all given in service of the staging of royal power.
If you have kept reading until now
congratulations! you will have noticed that the visual language of Thorin’s portrait is a fairly typical portrait of a sovereign: He is depicted with what looks like coronation robes, wearing a crown, showing off his sword, in seated position, almost as if on a throne. In terms of the photographer’s angle of shooting, note that Dunn has obviously “shot from the hip” – as in, she has lowered her camera down to Thorin’s level. And not only to his eye level, but a bit further down. So we, the viewers, are effectively looking up to the king who is made to look more impressive – and taller – than he is.
However, if you look a bit longer at the picture, you will notice that it clashes in a couple of respects with our expectations of an adequate royal portrait of Thorin. The fantasy world of Middle-earth seems to be closely similar to the medieval era. Based on that – and on our usual expectation of a royal portrait to be ornate and lavish – we would assume a royal portrait of Thorin to give a context. This is what we saw in medieval and absolutist portraiture, and it anchored the monarch in their time, alluded to their aspirations or achievements, and gave more opportunity for lavish decoration of the portrait. But the portrait of Thorin is shot in front of a neutral grey background. On first sight this may come across as a deplorable failure – or on a more practical and easier way to make the image photoshopable via an 18 percent grey background. But before you judge unfairly, there is a distinct advantage that the lack of background lends to the portrait: It emphasises our focus on the emotional effects of the portrait. There are no distractions. We can focus on the character of Thorin alone. So the choice to stage Thorin here without an opulent background is deliberate and not guided by technical concerns but by the rules of visual language. Less background – more focus on the sitter.
But then there is the pose. It is, unfortunately, not fit for a king. And this is where the portrait of Thorin deviates from what we have seen in the portraits of rulers of the past. While the pose itself – seated, arm leaning on the status-denoting sword – is not weak in itself, it is the other details that make it contradictory to what we would expect in the portrait of a monarch. Instead of a god-like, confident, intelligent, powerful statesman, ruler or sovereign, we are given an introspective, weary king who is bowing his head down. This looks more than a momentous snapshot than a portrait to send a message that will last for centuries. There may be a hint of defiance in that slightly tilted head, but Thorin does not dare look us in the eye. He is tired, concerned, absent-minded. And the fact that his shield lies discarded at his feet may even mean that he is defeated. If he had something to defend, surely he would arm himself with it. But he has let the shield fall, and stares at it contemplatively…
Would a monarch pose and have himself portrayed at the hour of defeat? It does not make any sense to do so if sovereign portraiture seeks to establish power and to depict wealth. Is this a snapshot of Thorin then, and not a deliberate portrait? No – the visual language of this portrait is in the tradition of conventional royal portraiture. It is more or less a contradiction in itself – the picture of a defeated king, but painted with the brush stroke of triumph. Unless you imagine a background story to this particular scene and the longer you think about the portrait, the less it makes sense.
Or does it? Hold on. We are fangirls. We follow all the news closely, and we can interpret anything Armitagean hermeneutically, that is, in the context of what we know about Thorin from the book, the films – and from his interpreter, Richard Armitage. Do you see what I am getting at? We could be fooled to think that RA’s teaser tweet hash-tagged #whatreallyhappenstoThorin, reflecting wishful
fangirl-thinking all over the fandom, may be an indication that [SPOILER] Thorin doesn’t die but is in fact re-instated as the King under the Mountain… Well, we have indeed been misled. By ourselves. Haven’t we always assumed that Thorin never became king because he died after the Battle of the Five Armies? The Durin genealogy sees this differently. According to Wikipedia “[h]e was never crowned King, but claimed the title King under the Mountain (and did in fact have right to it after refounding Erebor)”. *gasp* There we have it. The picture makes sense. This is Thorin, considering himself as King under the Mountain, dressed in regal splendour. He may have regained Erebor, but a sour triumph it is because his enemies do not recognise him as king, and his coronation was never an official celebration, witnessed by those who ought to swear him fealty. He’s pissed off. He’s thrown his toys shield out of the pram.
But dreams never die… I prefer this AU. [WARNING – excruciatingly soppy tear-jerker ahead!]
The big day had come. He had led his people to and from exile, he had searched for his father, the rightful king, he had gone on a journey of redemption and revenge, he had defeated his enemies – and he was crowned the King under the Mountain. The line of Durin was re-instated. For the coronation of Thorin II., son of Thrain, son of Thror, Balin had arranged for the pomp and circumstance that was custom among royals of any race. When the raven crown was placed on Thorin’s head in the cathedral darkness of the Erebor halls, his people had cheered, and many a dwarven eye had sparkled with the give-away twinkle of joyful tears. And his royal peers had accepted him as an equal among the monarchs and rulers of Middle-earth.
He himself had not even nearly been overcome by the moment. All his adult life he had worked for this. It was the culmination of his hopes and yet also the fulfilment of his destiny. The line of Durin was safe. He was due the crown, and he accepted it with the almost-arrogant haughtiness that he was known for. Rituals had to be celebrated, an age-old choreography of symbolic gestures and moves in acceptance of the homage that was paid to him, followed by a celebratory dinner with his guests of honour, among them the wise wizard Gandalf the Grey without whom he would never have attempted the journey that led him back to his kingdom.
Once the guests were sated after dinner, and the celebrations moved from the official to the informal, Thorin was swept away to the throne room where a portraitist was to take his likeness to mark this momentous day. Dressed in his coronation robes, in heavy armour under a luxuriously fur-lined and ornamented ceremonial robe, Thorin had ascended the throne of his ancestors. His right arm authoritatively placed on his sword in a gesture of confidence, the magnificent ornamental shield balanced on his left knee, he had stared directly at the portraitist, laying all the determination and power of the Durin dynasty into his piercing, assertive gaze. There was no defiance in Thorin, no regret, not even undue pride. He *was* the King under the Mountain, and nothing could take away from that.
As it finally dawned on him that his journey was at and end, that he had reached his destiny, and his future was now that of the ruler he was born to be, he became aware of sudden wisps of sadness that touched his heart, like gusts of an ice-cold breeze on a golden winter day. His heart froze as he realized that there was one glaring omission in this fulfilment of his destiny. The place to his left was empty. She who was to share the glory of his reign was absent. Grief took hold of him as he remembered his betrothed – a princess of a distinguished line, but also the love of his life, fair and beautiful, determined and yet compromising, wiser than her years and still joyously innocent like a child. Where he was hot temper, she was cool reason. She was soft- to his hardness, forgiveness to his vengeful fury. She was his measure, and his balance. And their love for each other had been perfectly matched. She had not survived the devastation of the dragon’s attack, and not a journey to the end of Middle-earth would bring her back.
Pangs of sorrow clawed at his heart. A tell-tale sparkle entered his eyes. He lowered his head and looked away from the painter scratching his likeness. No one could replace his Queen. The shield slipped from his hand with a clang and came to a rest by his foot. He would forever be defenseless against the grief for his beloved. She would be the rightful Queen under the Mountain for as long as he lived.