Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Comments written by Dewi on the back of the portrait if Elaine. 

Hand written comment on the back of the print of Elaine

Dylan II                                                                                                       © Dewi (David) Hyde 2011
Dylan                                                                                                           © Dewi (David) Hyde 2011

These portraits of my brother Dylan were made at the house in Esperance where our youngest brother Andrew lived, in his art room, six months after he died there. Dylan lives in Melbourne but came back for the second visit since Andy's death to reconnect with him. We had to make these images, or I certainly did even though it was very painful for us.

The one above was a wider composition placing him in the house, the second was after a longer lens was placed in the Linhof to hone in Dylan and what we were feeling while including a whisper of the context with blurred lines and letters on the wall behind him. At present I much prefer the second which was the first forwarded last night. 

It was late afternoon mid winter in a west facing room with last light illuminating the space from windows either end of the room which fronts the house on Dempster Street. Like most of my portraits it meant I had to open lenses - 150mm then 210 - to maximum aperture, f 5.6, and even then 1/10 of a second was as fast a shutter speed as light allowed. Slow portraits, I love 'em.

Portrait: Elaine

Elaine                                                                                                          © Dewi (David) Hyde 2011


Roger, questions you put to me last night about the portrait of Elaine are generic questions given the suite of work made in the same place with the same equipment and method, the 'studio'  portraits I mentioned as part this project. 

Face to face 6 feet apart with subject seated in front of a black backdrop with no direction other than to hold still once I've composed and focussed on ground glass - not easy with the light coming from directly behind me front on to sitters from a bank of windows the full length of the room 4 feet off the floor, a 1000 watt old halogen photoflood is bounced off the roof 45degrees and 6 feet from subject to supplement natural front lighting. Using the Linhof and 210 mm lens wide open at f5.6 and shutter speed of 1/10th sec I'm really pushing it for sharp results with  a depth of field of only about 6 inches shooting blind once I've loaded film and asking subjects to look straight at the lens which is at their eye height square on.

These are intense experiences for subject and photographer with no predictability of 'success' but I have had few disappointments since settling on this way of working the studio portraits. I generally make only 2 negatives to ensure a sheet misloaded or with dust spots doesn't lose the image. I guess I spent a fair while experimenting and failing to get what I was after before I settled with this.

I am after searingly honest simple portraits with these studio frames reacting against the slick glitz and shallow pretty of much contemporary imagery. I also don't pretend to find a subject's soul, nor believe theory about portraiture or many practitioners mythologising such nonsense. I know most of my subjects well but the portraits I make of them are only who we are for and at the half hour or so we made them, condensed into that 1/10th of a second exposing film. The life some of the best work has after this time is another story altogether.


Dewi, this is a haunting image. I'm finding it a little difficult to comment and am probably trapped in our discussion of 'American Gothic'. That's not to say my impressions are negative, exactly the opposite in fact. 

The simplicity of the portrait makes it a classic - in many ways, because it is so simple, basic, it is impossible to fault. I have to say that working the way you are with an absolute minimum amount of lighting and on 4x5 is a daunting process and taking only a couple of frames can only mean you're  confident of the result. Your technique, in a world where we are avalanched with digital equipment and manipulative techniques,  couldn't be coming from a more basic, grass roots, stance. And that in itself proves something - new technology does not necessarily  mean improved images. With the basic disciplines removed from technique it is my impression that there is a plethora of 'art by accident' going on.

It will be interesting to see reactions from a viewing audience at an exhibition. Viewers will  need  a very sophisticated degree of visual literacy to appreciate the portrait. I say that because you understand my impression of the general lack of knowledge about photography in Australia. This series could have the same effect on viewers as Diane Arbus's work had on New Yorkers decades ago - and there's certainly an element of Arbus is this. 

Interestingly I did receive the original print in the post and while I take the point that the scan doesn't have the subtle detail on screen I feel the print lacks a bit of punch. You hung on to the tones well but somehow I prefer the 'gutsy' contrast of the screen image.

I'm looking forward to this exchange gaining a bit of momentum. I hope a few people out there will feel free to comment.

All the best



  1. Hey Dewi, I find it really interesting that you prefer 'not to find a subjects soul' in this project. The portraits being 'only who we are for and at the half hour or so we made them...condensed...'
    A few things some to mind here, the integration of a camera into the relationship between two people in studio and the effect of the process of looking into one - by the subject and the artist.. The object comes between, obscuring and changing the relationship between artist and subject.
    The notion of 'hide and seek' between the artist and subject.
    If the photograph has not captured the subject's soul, where is it??

    I have more thoughts on this but am wondering how to put them into words for a blogsite.

    Thanks for the opportunity, there is a lot going on here.

  2. Thanks Elaine, very interesting comments.

    I don't try to not find a subject's soul in this portraiture, just don't believe it's possible to, not even in life, Soul to me is the accumulation of who you are, where you came from and the journey you undertake through life. Portraits are a moment along this journey.

    Your comments re object (camera) obscuring and changing relationships are spot on. Rather than trying to cover this up I hope the frank 'awkwardness' of my portraits draws attention to this reminding the viewer that it is a construct.

  3. Hi Dewi, interesting line of comments...

    I think you cannot escape the fact that you are creating these portraits in the context of history of portraiture, the history of your chosen medium as well as contemporary thought about portraiture. So positioning yourself as you have done is obviously important. Personally, I think you could elaborate a bit more in depth about who are you reacting against and what theory you don't believe?

    Also, it will be interesting to learn how the dialog with subject and mentor/audience influences your process of creating.

    This portrait of Elaine is stunning!

  4. Hello Monika, I don’t know a lot about contemporary thought about portraiture other than that it is circumscribed by an older ongoing debate relegating photography and especially photographic portraits to a lesser status than other art forms. This is argument justifying description of the photoportrait as objectifying, even annihilating the subject while paintings as object re subjectify the person represented ( Sontag, Didion Maleuve et al).

    Within photography and painting there is much talk of revealing the inner character or ‘soul’ of the subject, disregarding the fact that many, perhaps most practitioners have not met the person represented before making their likeness and probably never will afterwards, further disregarding the myth of fixed identity and the cult of the individual.

    I see people as evolving stories full of collective memory, contradictions and surprises responding to their conditions and environments. Accordingly I abhor the idea of the definitive portrait. This does not mean that powerful images cannot be created in the genre, the face and physicality of fellow humans are the pages on which our stories are written.

    Asking questions whose answers are stories and more questions is the intent and consequence of most of my work for me, whether landscape or portraiture. The majority of contemporary ‘photography’ across genres seems to me to be driven by a shallow ‘advertising’ aesthetic or gimmicky special effects, both heavily influenced by digital media which I do not properly regard as photography at all but a unique medium. Until practitioners and the public begin to understand the difference between media mediocrity will dominate.

    You also ask about dialogue between subject, mentor and audience in my work and I’m not quite sure what you mean there. I am very firm about working from my own beliefs and this ‘new’ work is no different there. I have had almost no contact with mentors and audiences are yet to see the work so there has been little dialogue there anyway. This blog I set up allowing open access and participation is the first exposure and interaction the work has recieved and will no doubt be an invaluable source of feedback and ideas... thanks Monika.