Michael Fried assesses a handful of photographic portrait practices in Why Photography Matters (2008), developing his claim for a contemporary revision of the anti-theatrical strategies he identified in Diderot’s C18 poetics of genre painting. His treatment of the feature-length video Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (2006, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno) outlines Fried’s view of this revision.

In 2005, star Real halfback Zinédine Zidane was tracked by seventeen dedicated video cameras for the duration of a ninety-minute football match. Gordon and Parreno subsequently edited the footage into a ninety-minute video showing the entire game through the movements of the single player. While Zidane knew this filming is going on, and also, of course, that the usual stadium and TV audiences were watching throughout, his total focus on and engagement in the match is plainly in evidence. Fried finds the video notable because Zidane’s intense focus on the match seems not to be undermined by his awareness of being watched:

“Zidane’s absorption in the match with Villareal is not depicted as involving the complementary unawareness of everything other than the focus of his absorption—which until recently has meant an unawareness of being beheld—that has always been the hallmark of absorptive depiction from Chardin to Greuze [of whom Diderot wrote] down almost to the present. On the contrary, a major part of the conceptual brilliance of Zidane consists in the fact that its protagonist’s sustained feat of absorption is taking place before an audience of eighty thousand spectators, with millions more watching via TV.” (p. 229)

Fried goes on to describe Zidane’s “double consciousness” in this respect. Although one term of consciousness seems allied to absorption (in the game) and the other to theatricality (of being watched), these two terms turn out not to work in opposition after all. In fact, while one term is his absorption in the game, the other is an additional layer of absorption in the theatricality of the event. What results is “a relationship which is no longer simply one of opposition or of antithesis, as it was throughout the absorptive tradition until recently, but instead allows a gliding and indeed an overlap between the two” (p.230).

This gliding or overlap is evidenced in the raw material situation being captured by the artists’ seventeen cameras. Moreover, this “revisionary adaptation of absorptive strategies”  (p.229) is addressed head-on in the edit of the video by three means. First, by foregrounding the TV and video equipment being used to record the event and mimicking aspects of the videographic style of sports broadcast; second, by sliding the focus within individual shots between Zidane’s face and the audience behind him—“the effect is to suggest Zidane’s shifting consciousness of the ‘theatrical’ aspects of his situation” (p.230); third, by including as subtitles quotes from Zidane about his experience of playing before a crowd, in which he describes being able to “almost choose what you want to hear” (p. 230). In particular, it is the minute detail with which these quotes describe features of audience movement and chatter that suggest to Fried that “the second term in his double-consciousness is not exactly distraction, absorption’s traditional other—albeit distraction itself, in the mode of reveries, can be a kind of absorption. […] Rather, it almost seems another form, another channel, of absorption, a psychic counter-movement” (p.231).

Luc Delahaye’s L’Autre photographs also mark a “turning away from the antitheatrical ideal in its original or strictly Diderotian form” (p.222) as the portraits, taken covertly on Métro trains, look blank and almost ‘on hold’ with the determination of each passenger to mentally absent themselves as far as possible from the tedium or discomfort of their present circumstances. The subjects of the portraits are not only unaware of being photographed; they seem unaware of their own presence: they share a “collective aspiration towards psychic absence” (p.222). In this case the photographer himself shares the aspiration. He produces the photographs sitting immediately in front of his subjects and releasing the shutter of the concealed camera while affecting the same psychic absence he sees in the passengers around him so as to blend in: “just like him I too stare into the distance and feign absence. I try to be like him. It’s all a sham, a necessary lie, lasting long enough to take a picture” (p.222, citing Bajac, Q. 2005).

… Is this a transferral of the performance of the sitter into a performance by the photographer?

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