Inspiration: Pierre Gonnord and the Baroque
Pierre Gonnord is a French-born photographer whose touching portraiture has that classical feel to it, instantly reminding to Baroque painters such as Caravaggio, Velázquez or Rembrandt. It is often said that in order to understand and learn of great portraiture we should include the Old Masters’ paintings among our references. I wanted to explore this in more depth in the context of photography, and Gonnord’s work gives a perfect framework to compare modern photographic work with the techniques used in 17th century paintings.
|Bernarde II, Pierre Gonnord, 2006|
Looking at the images, the first thing we may notice is the density of black in the frames. Subjects are wearing mostly black, set against an unlit background, which leaves nothing to pull our attention away from the flesh tones of the face. This not only cleans the frame from distractions but also de-contextualizes the portrait, offering no clue about the location or social background of the sitter – it is all about the facial expression, which drives us into the psychology of the subject and makes us really wonder what they’re thinking of. I also love the quiet stillness of these frames, and the immense sense of dignity they convey – I think the photographer could have just settled for dramatic images of low-life characters, but instead he strives to go further and offer images which leave room for interpretation.
In terms of lighting, the images are dominated by a single, rather harsh source of light, which creates stark contrast and deep shadows. This strong use of chiaroscuro creates drama and helps shaping the subject. In painting, this approach was taken to great lengths by Italian and Spanish painters of the Tenebrism style – look at the portrait by José de Ribera in the attached image gallery for a great example of this.
The tangent direction of the light enhances the textures, and suits the mood of the portraits, especially older male subjects, particularly well. Note the careful placement of the light so that it will be reflected by the eyes creating what’s known as the catch light, which make these look more alive. You can see a tiny speck of white paint used to the same effect in the close-up of Rembrandt’s self-portrait.
I overall love the photographs of this series and their elegance and how such a minimalistic approach can yield such strong results. You can find further examples of photography in relation to painting in Desiree Dolron’s Xteriors series and the fantastic portraits of Hendrik Kerstens, who combines a softer, more flattering use of light with modern twists -the plastic bag is just genius- yet instantly reminding of Vermeer.
If you are interested in the work of Gonnord, look for the compilation published by the Spanish editorial La Fábrica, which is worth checking out. And if you know of similar works, please drop a line and share them!