I am not sure I am all that impressed by what we are being offered as portraiture of famous people these days. More often than not, it seems to me, it’s more important to have some sort of gimmick in the photo - often accompanied by gratuitous Photoshopping, to make the result look like a still from a Disney movie. Make no mistake, there is a time and place for this look - for example, in an ad for Disneyland. But this kind of portraiture has become so common that I’m wondering when people will snap out of it. In a sense, it’s not too different from the portraiture that people loved about one hundred years ago, where a b/w photo would be gaudily hand coloured.
Bill Brandt’s portrait of painter Francis Bacon has always been one of my favourite portraits. This is probably in part because Francis Bacon (who relied a lot on photography for his work) is one of my favourite painters. But there’s a lot more. The whole photo is so excellently shot off-kilter that things just fall into place. The subject doesn’t look at the camera, there photo’s center is occupied by a street lamp that’s crooked, and on the right-hand side there’s a path leading away, staying at the edge of the photo.
Everything works just well together, and Francis Bacon, who was no stranger to posing, must have been extremely conscious about this session. For many of his paintings he used photographs that showed other people in very weird poses, and he also used to take photo strips of himself to create paintings out of those. He must have known what this photo session would lead to, and that makes this photo all the more interesting. The more I learn about this photo and/or about Francis Bacon, the more facets this portrait gets. It’s probably no surprise then that it’s one of my favourite portraits.