In the Frame for September 2012

This striking image was partly chosen by the Education Officer because the sitter appears so relaxed in, or indifferent to, our presence. Many in the Hering series show the subject either sitting or standing quite formally but his pose is a nonchalant one, legs crossed, head propped up by the elbow resting on the highly polished table. The other hand rests on his hip, the fingers turned back. The body language gives a relaxed and unruffled impression; this is a pose adopted of his own volition. Though seated at a table, there are no additional objects or surroundings to distract us; we in turn are forced to make contact.

For many sitters, clothing would have chosen carefully to reflect taste, wealth and status but here it is unlikely that much choice would have been available. That said, there has been some attempt at style and individuality in the way the clothes are worn. The shirt does not appear to have a collar but this has been mitigated by the neckerchief tied neatly around the neck. The waistcoat is buttoned to accentuate the fit and give an indication of the body within. In contrast, the jacket might be too big, we note the sleeves are turned up, but this is disguised by the way in which it is being worn. The pose allows the jacket to fall open so that any deficiency in fit is not obvious and, taken together with the rest of the image, we might believe the sleeves had been turned back for reasons of style rather than necessity. His hat set at jaunty angle, pushed back from his face, giving us a clear view of his rather impertinent gaze, calmly assessing us.

Unusually for photographic portraits of the time, he is looking to camera, making a direct connection with the viewer as recommended in a treatise on painting by the Renaissance polymath Alberti. It’s a challenging look, as compelling as it is disturbing. The eyes are focused on the viewer under slightly lowered brows. Although set in a young face, they give the impression that they have seen rather more than their years might suggest and have not flinched from the dangerous or unpleasant. If the eyes are indeed a ‘window on the soul’ then we might wonder at its quality; there is coldness, ruthlessness, even cruelty here. The mouth is closed with no hint of a smile, though arguably there is something sensual about it.

It is a photograph which is as intriguing as it is disturbing.

The photograph of JP will feature in a new thread ‘Hospital Snapshots’ beginning next month.

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