Can an image tell us about a person?

Last week I made a trip to the Saatchi Gallery to view Sam Taylor-Johnson’s photographs of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s apartment. It is not a secret that I am a fashion fanatic and I was expecting the images of Chanel’s private rooms to give me a glimpse into the designer’s personal space, thus providing an enriched understanding of her character. However, I left disappointed.

At first, I blamed Taylor-Johnson’s images for my dissatisfaction with the exhibition. Having said that, after waiting a week to think about the display my thoughts have changed and moved away from Chanel altogether. Taylor-Johnson’s images are dark. All the colour has been sucked out of the space and there is more focus on the architectural elements of the apartment than its contents. From these images, someone with no prior knowledge of Chanel may get the impression that she was vapid and flat and that is almost certainly not the case. The photographs are Taylor-Johnson’s interpretations. Perhaps she has depicted the apartment this way to signify the lack of life now that Chanel’s physical presence has left. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that these photographs really tell us anything about Chanel herself.

The saying goes that a picture tells a thousand words, but does it really? Throughout my undergraduate degree (in western art history), my tutors always insisted that portraits were rarely an accurate likeness to the sitter. Yes, these images that would have been commissioned by the elite and upper classes would bring some resemblance. Yet they often came with stipulations from the sitter that the artist would have had to follow if he (or she) wanted to be paid. Artists’ log books throughout history show that everything from the way the sitter is dressed to their facial expressions and any attributes that they are holding would all have been discussed in advance. Most of the time, these portraits would have been made to flatter the sitter. Often these images would be circulated as prints and would be the only pictures of rulers that the lower classes would have access to, thus appearances had to be well thought out and complimentary. Taking all this into account, it is more than likely that such images were contrived, not showing the full persona of the sitter, rather what was expected of them.

In terms of artist’s self portraits many art historians would strongly argue that they too, would illustrate themselves in the way in which they would want to be seen. Much like ‘selfies’ today, the artist could alter the way in which they would depict themselves, perhaps by changing their state of dress to that of a wealthier status or by incorporating an emblem of their reigning monarch. Just like we literally ‘filter’ and edit the way we are seen on social media. Thus, in terms of portraits, it is arguable that the image gives a distorted view of the persona that it is depicting.

Consequently, I would like to argue that while an image can indeed tell us about a person, one would probably be best to think about the artist’s intention when producing the picture as the sitter only makes half of the story. It takes at least two to create an image concerning a figure(s), the sitter(s) as well as the artist.

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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