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A Selection of Images from Recent Portrait Projects
Stand here. Sit down. Look into the camera. Look over there. Straighten your shoulders. Turn. Hold it. Smile. Thanks. Perfect.
We all know the drill, and in knowing it, we are complicit accomplices in the creation of a wealth of unremarkable images, made of or by us in the name of memorializing the face for what is affectionately called a “portrait.” There is a universal understanding of what constitutes a portrait. But the larger question is, “What is/makes a great portrait?”
Human nature necessitates classification for most things, and the photograph is no exception. The words “snapshot,” “photo-based artwork,” “fashion photograph,” “documentary,” “still-life,” “landscape,” and “portrait” all have an association for each of us, but in different ways and for different reasons. The dilemma, however, is the photograph of an anonymous individual—a photograph that eludes an easy label— one that is essentially just a picture of a person. One of the many great things about photography is that it allows unfettered license to look with a degree of deliberation and determination that is impossible in real life—i.e., to stare. Toby Morris makes pictures of people we do not know, people who would be disarmed by a gaze of such intensity. While the people in his pictures are neither famous nor related to the viewer, the tradition of portraiture and its formulaic formality are nonetheless present in each photograph. But a portrait, a great portrait, should convey something significant about the person in the picture. We as viewers bring to these photographs all those images in our shared collective consciousness. Essentially these “pictures of people” straddle the line between the image of a loved one that we carry in our wallet and the new faces that we encounter every day and forget within the hour—the face that we hope we will never forget and the face that reminds us of someone we cannot place.
By showing us very little in each frame, Toby Morris actually forces us to see much more, to take a second look with deliberation and purpose.What is conveyed about the person in the photograph comes from various clues in the scene (the locale or setting, the hairstyle, the individual’s clothing choices, and the photographer’s titles); from our desire/ need to figure out the back story of the photograph; and from what Mr. Morris himself brings to the shoot—his talent as a photographer and the ease with which he negotiates each personality.
Faces ultimately tell the story, a narrative that is an equal measure of both the person before the camera and the one behind it. While not a truly original observation, it nonetheless is an important one here. Each photograph and each interpretation will vary, never comprising a comprehensive narrative of a person or a life. How can it?
Toby Morris’s portraits (or “pictures of people”) are a mere mention, a footnote, a passing comment in the complex story that each of these portraits represents. One photograph of an anonymous person could be nothing more or nothing less. After all, photographs are a mere approximation of the subject. In reality even the most celebrated portrait photographs are two-dimensional—figuratively and literally. As photographic portraits, these remarkable images by Toby Morris reside, nonetheless, like most pictures of people, somewhere between the full-color, large-format photograph of a person we know intimately and the blurred image of a stranger.
- Charles Stainback
A native of Texas, Toby Morris received his B.A. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked at daily newspapers
in Chicago, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut, and now splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, where he works on a variety of editorial and commercial assignments as well as personal projects.