Subliminally, without really knowing, we’re all exposed to art – as well as impressions – that shape our unconscious and our ability to think, perceive and feel. As we move through life, art that was once a staple of our history books takes on a greater meaning, and perhaps this is none more true than for Renaissance Art and our assimilation with it as being what portraiture with power is about. The essence of the best portrait photography is mirrored in these Renaissance pieces. For me this is especially true of the Tudor Portrait Artist Hans Holbein ‘the Younger’.
In the works of Holbein lies the heart of my portraiture inspiration. I loved history as a child, its permanence and transience all at once, reflected through the eyes of cultural and societal change, how it has been documented and therefore how it is recalled. I was fortunate to live near to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, a treasure trove of pieces that began to unconsciously inspire and challenge me. The Gallery exhibits several of Holbein’s Works, which reflect not only the Renaissance period but exude a timeless quality as records of history.
With Holbein we gaze upon solemn yet intensely powerful expression. His subjects are painted as though frozen in that moment in time, the essence of their being, authority and personality captured forever from that one moment. Holbein took his interpretation of his sitters seriously, knowing they were the testaments of time, and this has inspired me to adapt a similar style for my own Photographic Portraiture.
My work calls me to photograph many high-profile corporate individuals and political figures, and over time I am continually drawn to Holbein’s influence in my own interpretations of the subject of portraiture. I believe Holbein’s style and timeless authority easily sits alongside the modern portrait – I aim to imbue my viewers with the same thought provocation that he succeeded in creating.
Detail, in the eye of an artist, is everything. As a viewer you don’t realise how the tiny intricacies of art combine to leave you with a bigger picture, a bigger sense. For Holbein, his portrait of Sir Thomas More illustrates this ability to focus on detail. There are the slightest imperfections that reflect in themselves perfect definition, making it appear almost like a photograph itself. There is no Renaissance ‘air-brushing’ away of imperfections, there is no place in portraiture for the Death of Real. What you see is a true likeness of the subject at that moment in time. Real is everything – it is the tiniest of imperfections that define a person as the character they are. This can be seen in my portrait of Sir Patrick Stewart where I encouraged and captured the true facial tones and imperfections, capturing the essence of the man, just as Holbein did with More.
Objectivity is crucial in portraiture: for Holbein and for me. The outward appearance of his subjects directly reflects the inner character, personality and mood without an over-layering or obscuring of this essential essence by the artist himself. I endeavour to follow this same style, bringing an integrity to the final portrait that allows the viewer to reflect on their own opinion and understanding of what they see.
Having worked in fashion photography, I know and understand the drive to create perfection that renders an image false. In portraiture, Holbein teaches us, it is the imperfections that make perfection. Models are directed on what to be, how to act, how to represent emotion: for portraiture this is simply wrong. A true representation and a guiding and directing to the true inner person is what makes a portrait thought-provoking and an accurate historical record that exudes timeless quality.
The greatest collection of Holbein’s work is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His works provide inspirations to historians, art-lovers and passers-by alike. His viewers are drawn to a naturally level-playing field that allows interpretation and true-understanding. It’s this timeless quality I seek to recreate and learn from.