The following essay appeared in the June/July 2006 issue
of Art New England.
Rob Amory: intimate portraits By Peter Anastas
The evolution of an artist’s expression is as important as the finite form which that expression takes. intimate portraits, an exhibition of large format, high resolution photographic portraits, reflects the culmination of a process Rob Amory embarked on a decade ago, one that has united a deep awareness of human complexity and richness with an exploration of digital technology as a tool for searching for, observing, and expressing nuance and inner depth. The result is an astonishing installation of twenty-five images selected from over seventy-five that Amory has completed.
Those who view these arresting images for the first time will doubtless be impressed by the dramatic size of the photographs, a scale that is as much a part of Amory’s aesthetic as his choice of color over black and white. His use of scale achieves a relationship of equality between his subjects and those viewing the images, which coupled with the intensely tactile high resolution detail, draws viewers deeply into exploring the surface of each portrait, making each face into a landscape and inviting protracted observation. His compositions reject stiffness and formality, indeed any formalism that would create a barrier between subject and viewer, or, more significantly, between artist and subject.
The result is an intimacy, a naturalness in the subject that one does not often find in a formal portrait. Amory has avoided the pitfalls inherent in the posed studio portrait or “executive shot,” choosing instead to concentrate on what he calls “the reflectivity and inner space” of his subjects. Compassion and attention to the subject, both visual and personal, are signature qualities in Amory’s work. His subjects represent a multiplicity of races, ethnicities and social backgrounds and a wide range of occupations and professions. “I am trying to leave you as directly in the presence of these individuals with whom, at some level, I feel we all have something in common,” Amory affirms.
The artist’s Zen-like attention to subject, his connection with the person being photographed in an agreed upon process, and his conscious rejection of turning a person into a portrait and thereby “making art,” all allow Amory to approach his subjects, as he says, “with the hollow mind, one free of attachment.” A consequent refreshing lack of artifice results, with little overt sense of “made” photographs. One feels utterly in the presence of the subject, as if there had been no interposition of the photographer at all, no camera lens. Describing his own experience of the process, Amory says, “It’s almost like looking through a one-way glass.” He further notes that choosing to print the images on paper with a velvet soft surface quality produces images in which his subjects don’t appear “encapsulated” under a reflective, coated surface. “I intentionally create work that allows you to be drawn further into it. There’s no barrier.”
That these images have a painterly quality about them is equally no accident, particularly when one considers their textural focus and compositional attributes. The work is heavily informed by Amory’s background in drawing and painting and only thirdly, Amory affirms, by the use of the camera. The artist himself considers the work to be “a synthesis of painting and photography in terms of feeling and composition.” He invokes 17th century portraiture as inspiration, particularly, as he notes, “the severity of it, its emphasis on the heads, the faces, the eyes.”
From the beginning of this work, Amory sought to include images involving more than one person, bearing witness to his existential perspective that “We are all born alone, and we all die alone; even in the most loving and close relationship with somebody, we’re still alone. We never merge.”
About a third of the works in this exhibit are in this category. They are not “group” portraits, but a bringing into one place of two or more people. Amory juxtaposes the singular and the mutual, portraying subjects – a mother and two daughters, husbands and wives, long-time colleagues – who, in his words, “obviously have a level of comfort with each other; otherwise, they wouldn’t be willing to be participants in this process” but where sharing the same space as another doesn’t preclude simultaneously being in an essentially solitary, interior world.
Tangible within all of his images is Amory’s respect for the intimate privacy inherent in each individual. It is as though the photographer has been able to capture each of his subjects alone, in the most personal space of their lives, away from the studio or any public space. This gives to each subject a contemplative aura, acknowledging that each one of us periodically withdraws into the very core of our beings to wonder, to ponder, to reflect, in a state of inner stillness, which, in turn discloses the very meaning of our lives.
However, even within this state of quiet reflection, there is a dramatic intensity to the work, a riveting quality to each individual or multiple subject portrait that calls attention to the separate identities of the subjects – the color of the hair, the curve of cheek or shape of ear, the texture of the skin, the lines of time and care etched into it, the glance of an eye.
It is difficult to be passive in the presence of Amory’s work. He takes us with him as he follows his subjects into states of private reflection that show each in his or her fullest individuality, their most complete humanity. And if as observers we experience this intimacy vicariously, being so moved we acknowledge a relationship between us and his anonymous subjects, connecting us with them and the universal community surrounding us.
Against the forces of dehumanization, when entire cultures are reduced to stereotypes and caricatures, we need Amory’s affirming vision of people at their most vulnerably human. “We live in an age of commerce,” Amory has said, “an age of advertising and of manipulation, all for the purpose of marketing. We live in an age of anomie, of economic anxiety. And I’m going to say no, my work is not about that.”
What Amory’s work is about is what the most significant art and literature have always been about – who we are, where we find ourselves in time and place, and how we live in a world in whose making we haven’t always been complicit. Hence the tragic, that sense, when all is said and done, of metaphysical aloneness we all share. And yet the trust that Amory has been able to achieve with those he’s photographed, in order to show them at their most vulnerable, their least defended, their most human, is a capacity for trust we share equally, a trust that keeps us hopeful even in dark times. For when that trust prevails we arrive at what Amory has called “that immense, immeasurable space of the soul within.” And the capturing of that soul within is one of the many achievements of intimate portraits.
This essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition of Rob Amory’s intimate portraits presented at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, 27 Pleasant Street, Gloucester, MA 01930, March 4 – June 18, 2006.