research - John Merrill

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“Portrait as Landscape” emerged out of an MA project.  We were tasked with making work inspired by a visit to “The Hardman’s House” in Liverpool.  Chambre Hardman was perhaps the most prestigious portrait photographer in the North West from the 1930s to 1960s.  His house and studio in a Georgian Terrance near to the Anglican Cathedral has been adopted by the National Trust.

Anyone who thinks retouching of portraits is something new should take the tour.  Throughout the premises are signs reassuring clients that "any temporary skin blemishes will be removed by our assistants."  If such blemishes could not be removed by applying make up, Hardman had three assistants who were constantly at work retouching negatives.  In 1955 Hardman wrote "I have no hesitation in using any means of control at any stage, which will help to give me the result that I want providing that such control does not conflict with the photographic character of the image." When asked what proportion of his portraits were retouched he replied "all of them".

My response was to take a different approach.  Working digitally, I manipulated tone and contrast to accentuate features of the skin – the opposite of the “soft focus” used in conventional studio portraiture.  I was surprised by the results.  My models were friends and neighbours I had known for years.  In every case my portraits revealed facial features I had never before noticed.  Similarly in self-portraits, I saw features I had never noticed when looking in the mirror.  

I had always eschewed portrait photography because of the widely-believed, pervasive myth that good portraits reveal depths of character.  What if I could produce portraits that revealed what is there - surface, rather than what isn’t there – depth of character?  Was it possible to engage the viewer in an exploration of surface, topography, terrain, the landscape of the face?  

This task incorporates both art and science.  How do we see?  Do we instinctively attribute personality to faces and if so, why?  Are these attributions wrong?  Can they be overcome?  Have other artists addressed the issue?  My artistic explorations can be found under “Portrait as Landscape”.  My reviews of the science of visual cognition and other relevant artists can be found under “written”.  A "3 minute thesis" video presentation of the research is here.    

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