It struck me today the similarities between this picture taken from Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy and that of the work of Leon Borensztein. Borensztein was a portrait photographer during the 70’s and early 80’s and at some point decided to ‘step back’ from the traditional portrait frame and, asking the sitter not to smile would take a single shot for himself. What results are pictures that tend to be ‘truer’ representations of the sitters than that which they are intending to put forward or portray through the image that they are paying to have taken (an image of a woman who looks exactly like the dog she has on her lap is both hilarious and sad and, unfortunately not relevant here). Sometimes backing up just enough so that that part of other peoples lives – the slightly musty home-furnishings, the unwanted children – show through.
Borensztein’s work manages at once to be a fascinating semi-vernacular anthropological exercise and at the same time posits ideas of personal image Vs public image (or intended Vs actual image) “He at once captured a part of what people wanted to present of themselves, but also recorded the reality of where they were” says Todd Hido in his introduction to Borensztein’s work in Witness number 7 which Hido curated.
The above image from Lesy’s first book Wisconsin Death Trip does something similar. It would appear that the photographer has pre-empted/anticipated Borensztein’s bold move (by around 70 years) by framing his picture a few steps back from the subject: that of a recently deceased child. Such an image would have been used to a very tight frame, cropping out almost any furniture while the casket would have been layed with flowers, emphasizing the ‘Not Dead But Sleeping’ approach, not only to memorial portraiture but also to funeral practices of the time. It is most likely that this image has been taken before the body would have been presented to the family and mourners. As was the custom, the bodies of dead children would usually have been presented in the parlour surrounded by wreaths and flowers. But, what this image shares with the others here is whilst seemingly being posed for images supposed to be used as memorial photographs – albeit in utterly opposing terms – the subjects unwittingly find themselves part of a larger, more anthropological picture. The formal regulation of portraiture is for an instant, shirked of in favor of something more utilitarian and anthropological by nature "….almost as if in the gap between their poses and posturing, and the incongruence of these environments, is where the truth actually lies”
For Witness Number 7 Published by Joy Of Giving Something inc click here