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Portraiture exhibit that omits the subject

By dpreview staff on Jul 16, 2012 at 16:37 GMT

A celebrity portraiture series by American photographer Robert Weingarten is on display at Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian museum. Weingarten's work is unusual in that his photographs do not include his famous subjects. Instead, he photographs individual objects and scenes that have informed the lives and achievements of his accomplished subjects and uses them to create a composite image in Photoshop, seeking a metaphorical, rather than representational portrait.

Weingarten has coined the phrase, 'the translucent composite' to describe his end result. To date, his subjects have included the likes of baseball icon Hank Aaron, actor/director Dennis Hopper, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the video below he explains that he begins by asking his subjects for an actual list of places and objects that have shaped and influenced their lives. He then goes about the task of photographing their choices - traveling to London and Rome to fulfill artist Chuck Close's list, for example.

A first reaction to Weingarten's approach may be that he inserts too much of himself into someone's portrait. Yet it can certainly be argued that photographic portraiture has always represented the voice of the photographer at least as much as that of the subject itself. And by allowing his subjects to provide the list of source material, perhaps this approach actually tips the balance more in favor of the subject.

Does Weingarten succeed in his aim of, as he puts it, 'creating a new language of portrait'? Can a viewer glean more insight from a metaphorical examination of a subject's life? Or is this approach best left to the medium of biography? Let us know what you think after watching the video below.

Robert Weingarten: Creating The Portrait Unbound from One Production Place on Vimeo.


Total comments: 46
By role_of_72 (Jul 20, 2012)

I'm not sure if this is called photography because photographic tools were used only for getting the raw material to his work but anyway I like it.

Works like this need much more imagination than most of us have and this cannot be compensated with million dollar gear. Thanks for the video it was really refreshing!

By AgentSanchez (Jul 20, 2012)

I'm sorry, but I don't believe it's a 'portrait' if you don't include the individual. Sounds gimmicky...

I call epic fail...

Comment edited 59 seconds after posting
By m3 (Jul 18, 2012)

To see a real example of a portrait in absence of the central figure - no better than Elliott Erwitt's masterpiece of Pau Casals:

Click on:
PUERTO RICO. Mayaguez. 1955. Pablo CASALS' cello.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
Dan Wagner
By Dan Wagner (Jul 18, 2012)

"The translucent composite" is a fancier name for a double exposure. I think Weingarten's double (or triple etc) exposures are colorful and pretty in an abstract way. However, I'm calling "The King has no clothes" on this series. To get press and make sales at galleries some photographers are playing the gimmick card. When photographs of Avedon's caliber are shown, gimmicks are not necessary. Personally I like craft. I like real. Photographers after a certain period of time can fall victim to delusions of grandeur. And unlike many critics, I'm not afraid to back up my position by showing my own work Cheers.

By GordonSaunders (Jul 18, 2012)

I like the idea of using places important to a subject to represent them but agree that "art" often is bs to hide a lack of ideas or craft. Your portfolio shows excellent examples of high quality photography without gimmicks. Thanks for adding the link.

1 upvote
Pavel Kohout
By Pavel Kohout (Jul 17, 2012)

His real photographs are much, much better. I especially appreciate Weingarten's Amish series:

This is photography at its best.

Music Hands
By Music Hands (Jul 17, 2012)

I can't get it to play. Either here, or on Viimeo - it starts, but won't go bast 0:02 even though the grey bar shows the video is loading.

By mwstebbins (Jul 17, 2012)

I'd much rather listen to what the photographer has to say, than listen to the music. The music over the voice RUINED the photographer's message. Call me old fashioned! m

By WilliamJ (Jul 17, 2012)

It's not being "old school", just being plainly logical: when someone speaks, it's to be listen at. Crystal clear obviousness !
I know "art field" has been desesperately trying to break free from logic for a long time, but every attempt is not necessarily successful...

By raoul821 (Jul 17, 2012)

why not...
I see it more like graphical work than "photography" but... interesting in its own right.

1 upvote
By WilliamJ (Jul 17, 2012)

+1. It's essentially a layout work to my view too and as an illustration it's ok, otherwise I must say I do not like too much the fact some "artist" create their "art" by using others masterpieces. There are some outstanding exceptions - Dali for instance, if we talk about paintings - but I find it way too easy to produce beauty by using already beautiful works.

By bwabl (Jul 17, 2012)

I repeatedly notice that an artist with high proficiency in texting and in verbal expression is often more successful in getting his work "appreciated" than the quite artist of much better quality but lower capacity for verbal delivery. Specifically, this work constitutes a technological noise of no apparent artistic or human value beyond what we have already seen in excellent portraits by others. There is nothing in these photoshop posters to represent to the viewer the true character of the subject.

By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Jul 17, 2012)

You're right. I'd add, after seeing Mr. Weingarten's photos at his website, that their content is rather too obvious. If the artist meant to subtly depict the subject by including references to his (hers) life and achievements, those references are too "graphic". It is a contradiction that he wants to challenge the viewers' imagination by not including the subjects' actual portrait, and then give some rather too explicit guidelines.
Plus I think this drifts way off photography. It has aesthetic content, but ultimately it's rather pointless. Better look at Mr. Weingarten's work as an exploration of Photoshop's possibilities.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
By gl2k (Jul 17, 2012)

Dear dpreview

This website is about pixel beeping and endless discussions about focusing errors, light leaks and the perfect skin tone. Not to forget the 2 most important questions : "what is the perfect walk about lens ?" and "is my lens sharp ?"

It's definitely not about photography and art.

By GKN (Jul 17, 2012)

And remember that all discussions should be backed up with either a photo of a brick wall, or of a cat!

By 7enderbender (Jul 17, 2012)

Well, he is a good photographer because he uses Canon - oh wait, he uses a non-L lens, so he really a crummy photographer. That's settled then.

By PDidd117w3n7y (Jul 17, 2012)

Portrait with no subject. Just looked up the formal definition of a portrait, and of the two listed at the top this is the loosest interpretation of the 2nd, said to be a representation of someone... It is border line not a portrait...

That being said the artist himself categorized his work best.. This is not a portrait but a digital collage (composite) as he puts it. A portrait is just that a single photograph of a subject, whether you choose to silhouette or light your subject is up to you. But when you mash up 10 photographs plus text it is called graphic design not photography. Photography in this case is a tool in his graphics.

Finally this is art contrary to popular opinion below and it is good, just don't call it what it is not really... a portrait.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
1 upvote
David Hart
By David Hart (Jul 17, 2012)

Art is in the eye of beholder. My thought is that this form of art is crap, based on my personal aesthetics. However, this doesn't close my mind to accept that others see this as art. To those who believe that this is art, what category would you put it in?

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I believe that a photograph should be able to stand on it's own and involve the composition of a single moment/setting. In fact, I find that the most powerful photographs fall into this category.

A mashup, in my mind, no matter the vision behind it, does not make it photographic art nor does it advance the art of photography. The artificiality overwhelms the image and causes me to believe that this belongs in a different category than photographic art.

What do you think?

PS: I can't bother wasting time and energy being jealous of anyone, I'm too busy doing my own thing... : - )

PPS: Curators can be idiots too. Canadian museum bought a "painting" with three stripes for millions of dollars!!

By torags (Jul 17, 2012)

Interesting art and interesting comments from the posters.

Maybe none of the posters have achieved the level of success of Weingarten

Jealousy expressed in a catty way... jeeze....

Perhaps this is art, a step beyond removing pimples from subjects portraits.

Seems to me, what's new here is that he has engaged his subject in a unique way. Celebrities have their likeness's in many places, Weingarten engages them differently and has them give him the benchmarks of their life

Whether others viewers like or dislike the image, makes no difference (including us as internet experts)

Apparently, the curator at the Smithsonian liked them, but what does he know about photography.

By absentaneous (Jul 17, 2012)

another one who mixes success with quality? van gogh sold 1 painting during his life which means he was completely unsuccessful. what his art means today we all know, do we? thomas kinkade was one of the most popular, successful painters in the USA at the time of his death yet you won't find any serious art critics who believes his art is artistically relevant not today nor in the future.

so, one can talk about jealousy and what not or one can talk about facts. art is everything just not everything is good art. so, back to the facts. you are talking about engaging subjects in a unique way. ya, he surely put a lot of effort to realize his idea but that doesn't mean his idea was unique, new or artistically relevant. it's not about liking or disliking the image but about knowing the history of art and photography in order to be able to determine whether an idea is original or artistically relevant. and by no standards his is. that has nothing to do with people liking it or not.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By gwales (Jul 17, 2012)

dpreview forums reminds me of this song:

Home of the brave, land of the free
why won't you let him be what he wants to be

The kids all laugh at his hair and funny clothes.
And more than once he's gone home with a bloody nose
he's not like them and they can't ignore it. So they all hate him for it.

Home of the brave, land of the free
why won't you let him be what he wants to be

It really burns me up, when they put him down
He's the only one whose saying something in this whole town
Instead of those the trouble they hand him, why don't they try to understand

By oneproductionplace (Jul 17, 2012)

I produced the video posted here a couple of years ago when Robert Weingarten's work was exhibited in Atlanta at the High Museum. For the Smithsonian exhibition we cut two two pieces from the same footage but with a slightly different focus. I posted them for those interested. Here are the links:
1) (Pushing Boundaries)
2) (Hank Aaron Portrait)
One Production Place

By LWW (Jul 17, 2012)

So you take the clues provided, make a decision as to who it's all about using the perception that you already have on the "subject"?

Cart before the horse for me.

By mu55 (Jul 16, 2012)

I agree - the concept isn't that original, but he has certainly taken it to the next level, actually meeting and interviewing the people, shooting the actual objects (such as the baseball) and traveling for the right pictorial elements (fresco for example).

It's almost like having an idea years and years ago and finally having the time and budget to realize it to it's best potential - well worth doing I say.

Me - I personally don't like text in artworks - I think it detracts visually and cheapens the work - works of art should be successful enough in conveying a message without resorting to explanation within the work it's self. - having said that I do like text graphically speaking, but your eye jumps to it naturally, meaning you end up trying to read the text rather than explore the image.

And is it just me or does his camera bag seem excessive for the task...

By micahmedia (Jul 16, 2012)

I think it's an interesting concept, but I think the visual language I'm seeing here speaks too intimately to either the subject or obsessed fans who will know the details of the subjects' lives.

I agree with the comment below as well--his techniques have already been explored with much more skill by many others.

The one thing this guy has going for him is the cajones it took to approach and successfully engage the subjects. Credit due there.

But that's about it.

By Cane (Jul 16, 2012)

Photogs are a snippy little bunch, aren't they.

By absentaneous (Jul 16, 2012)

this is so early 2000. it always amuses me how some people think they discovered america just because they haven't heard it was already discovered. I was making such images more than 10 years ago. it's surely fun and visually appealing but artistically boring.

By matajuro2505 (Jul 16, 2012)

Its cute that he thinks his imagery is unique. This was an assignment in my basic digital photo class when I was studying photography 5 years ago.... And I'm sure it has been done before then.

1 upvote
By Gonard (Jul 16, 2012)

Robert Weingarten - a true artist. Photography is a pure art form in his hands. Perhaps there is more to photography than "the rule of thirds", "f/stops", "pin sharp", etc. ~173 years ago, with the first photographs, photography has been questioned by "true artists" as whether it can be considered an art form. Certainly there has been some slow movement in the acceptance by some in the art community. However, Weingarten and others, hopefully, will put an end to questioning artists using cameras for their creativity. He, and others, are true artists.

1 upvote
By absentaneous (Jul 16, 2012)

what this guy is technically doing (composite prints) was done already by photographers soon after photography was invented. in those times photographers as you said were not considered artists that's why what they tried to do was to bring photography as close to painting as they could. which was of course a wrong idea. photography was established as an artistic medium only when it stopped to try to compete with painting. what this guy is doing is just playing with photoshop. I did the same stuff 10 or 12 years ago and I got bored of it. these images are surely visually appealing and fun but artistically they are without any serious value because they bring nothing art hasn't seen in abundance before. this kind of stuff is the first thing one tries to have fun with once he discovers layers and opacity effects in photoshop.

1 upvote
By jamesfrmphilly (Jul 16, 2012)

this is crap…..anytime you need an entire video to 'explain' a photo, the photo has failed

By iamachair (Jul 16, 2012)

I agree with others that posted here. Is it artistic and creative? Yes. Is it photographic skill? Framing and Composition, Yes. Are any of the elements themselves something an artistic photographer would shoot the way he does? Maybe. Does he rely heavily on post-editing? Absolutely. I think all of us who enjoy the photo medium can challenge ourselves to think outside the box. When I find people who see the world differently, it doesn't mean I'll see it exactly the same way. For example, I was enthralled by young Evan of I liked his multiplicity idea but adapted it in a totally different way.

By crsantin (Jul 16, 2012)

This isn't a new idea by any means, grade school kids do these types of projects all the time minus the technology. I really like his approach though. I think his observations about reductive and inductive processes are important and I like that he is trying to push the limits of what a portrait is or should be. Some of the works in the video seemed a bit one-dimensional. The Hank Aaron portrait really only showed images pertaining to Hank the baseball player, the same with the Buzz Aldrin one, and ultimately that is a bit boring to me. I learned nothing new about Hank Aaron from this portrait and it seemed like nothing more than a series of baseball related images put into a collage. I really would like to see his other work and see it in person, it's so hard to appreciate in a video.

1 upvote
By InTheMist (Jul 16, 2012)

Its not my style, but there is no doubt he's taken this artform to a high level.

By peacefrog33756 (Jul 16, 2012)

He does wonderful work at the "inductive" process of taking a blank computer screen and then magically adding to it. To me, his work is not so much photography but the creative manipulation of images after the fact. His creativity doesn't rest so much in the photographic process but more in the processing of images to tell a story.

By dojoklo (Jul 16, 2012)

If you are interested in this type of layered composition and "story-telling" be sure to have a look at artists like James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg, who created painted works with a related approach, with great insight and subtlety.

Esmee Farquhar
By Esmee Farquhar (Jul 16, 2012)

Do you know what kind of reading I should be doing if I want to get ideas from artists? I am an amateur photographer who is also taking drawing and painting classes. I am trying to learn about art, and I am also taking classes from a local photographer, Chris Pollack.

By Dennis (Jul 16, 2012)

I like the work, but I think there's too much fluff in calling them portraits. Sort of like calling a biography a "portrait in words". It is what it is.

By BradJudy (Jul 16, 2012)

I saw Weingarten portrait work when it came through the High Art Museum in Atlanta. It reminded me a lot of mixed-media artwork and I think it makes the most sense in that context instead of the photography context. Photography is a tool being used to combine items that cannot be combined physically as in traditional mixed media.

I do feel like it fails in being a "metaphorical" representation of a person as the content is very literal (the baseball, the jersey, etc). Perhaps this is an inevitable result from the goal of being able to recognize who the person is rather than just convey an impression of the personality.

By eyedo (Jul 16, 2012)

A writer sent me a letter more than 32 years ago to collaborate on this same subject. I think he fell ill and we did not proceed.
I was honored to be asked to photograph the celebrity subjects though!

By AlexBakerPhotoz (Jul 16, 2012)

Interesting idea, but ultimately it seems a bit coy to me. Does the viewer feel stupid if they can't figure out who it is or clever if the can? Does that matter? Also, these photo collages remind me of LeRoy Neiman sports paintings. Big photos I like however. I wish I had his giant printer and could afford to feed it.

By billkoe (Jul 16, 2012)

Few ideas are truly original including this concept. One of Elliott Erwitt's most famous portraits is of Pablo Casals without Casals. It showed only his cello. That should not discourage artists like Weingarten, however, who adds composites into the mix. I do see it veering way into the realm of graphic design and away from portraiture.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 9 minutes after posting
Tom Goodman
By Tom Goodman (Jul 16, 2012)

These oversized images are typical of the big for bigness-sake movement we've endured many years now. Big is not always better. Nor does the heaping on of layers necessarily deepen meaning. Indeed,the obvious hints and/or clues (Aaron's number; Close portrait; etc.) render these works hackneyed.

1 upvote
By brooklynphoto (Nov 13, 2012)

I agree. This photographer is acting as if his works have such deep meaning and he's come up with such unusual skills. These are basically digital triple or quadruple exposures using layers. And he's basically an illustrator using photography instead of Adobe Illustrator. I find it very messy looking and not meaningful. I cannot believe all the acclaim he is getting. I think the analogy to Leroy Neiman was a good one.

By novaoculus (Jul 16, 2012)

Unique idea, but ultimately ineffective. The final product just looks jumbled and unfocused. I completely understand what he's doing and why, but for me it just doesn't work.

Joe Josephs
By Joe Josephs (Jul 16, 2012)

Wonderful portrait of a photographic artist - his overlaying a person's important venues & objects creates a 'framed biography' - very unique, very effective.

1 upvote
Total comments: 46