French Poet and Art Critic, Charles Baudelaire (1859) once said “A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound”. The complexities Baudelaire speaks of are a challenge to master in portrait photography, such as power dynamics and reflecting the true nature of your subject. This week, PHOTOFAIRS speaks with renowned South African photographer Pieter Hugo (b. 1976) about capturing the perfect portrait. “I try and keep an intensity throughout the portrait session” speaks Hugo “Most of the best images I make are at the beginning of a session before familiarity starts setting in”.
The complexity of portrait photography also lies in the artist's ability to delve deeper into their subjects, more than just the external ‘obvious’ visuals. Expanding on this in discussion of Hugo’s work, Meg Maggio (Director of Pekin Fine Arts) states that “the best portrait photographers share a willingness to go ‘digging’ well below the subject-surface”. Hugo assiduously researches his subjects, developing absorbing narratives, securing his well-known title as a documentary photographer. ‘The Hyena and Other Men’ series in 2005, for example, attracted an abundance of media coverage due to the rare story behind the subjects. The group of men were performers who would travel across Nigeria with their hyenas, similar to the circus performers of the 30s. The end result was a series of strong memorable portraits of beast and man. It is this unusual storytelling and the intimate relationships made along the way that makes Hugo’s artwork thrive.
“Well, through the various projects that I have made over the years” speaks Hugo “a cohesive argument starts to form. The ‘digging’ [Meg] refers to is most important for me, the maker of the work, to situate myself in relation to the subject. Sometimes one starts a project and the motivation for it is ahead of me. It often takes me time to catch up to the impulse. The ‘digging’ helps this process - It helps me understand WHY I am attracted to a theme”.
Art has the capacity to make us view the world in a different way. Not necessarily how we intended it to, but it can nonetheless...
More recently, Hugo has explored personal topics of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ through his photography. His 2013 series ‘Kin’ exhibited at PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai 2019 with Pekin Fine Arts, along with other series. The body of work portrays Hugo’s experiences in the post-apartheid city of Cape Town, where he resides and works, captured over eight years. Hugo eloquently explores sensitive yet imperative themes of homelessness, inequalities and racism in South Africa. Aiming to showcase the ‘gap between society’s ideals and its realities’ through the project, the artist explains that “photography has the capacity to play with the space between documentary and art. It is this position along with its inherent voyeurism that lends it a potentially powerful and immediate energy. It is also a very democratic medium”.
Series of works such as ‘Kin’ often trigger mixed responses amongst viewers, due to their political and sensitive origins. We asked Hugo if when shooting a body of work, he can predict the reactions that the series might generate… “I try not to preempt the viewer or audience” he responded, “I argue that if I’m moved by something or find something interesting then someone else will share this feeling. Art has the capacity to make us view the world in a different way. Not necessarily how we intended it to, but it can nonetheless.”
In a similar theme of belonging and identity, ‘Flat Noodle Soup Talk’ (2015-16) saw Hugo travel to Beijing on an artists’ residency. “The residency was the catalyst for a much larger project - how do I photograph a place which I have no knowledge of or particular interest in? Can I depict the changing nature of Chinese society in the moment of its move from a collective, seemingly uniform identity towards one where individual expression has begun to visibly flourish in the wake of the country’s rise as a modern empire and economic juggernaut?” Hugo questioned. The series, successfully displays everyday Beijingers, from an expressionless family on their sofa at home to a portrait of a boy with a flamboyant blue mohawk and piercings. All of which demonstrate Baudelaire’s qualities of a portrait; simple and obvious, yet illustrating something much more complex and profound.
Hugo’s works have earned solo exhibitions across the world, such as The Hague Museum of Photography, Ludwig Museum in Budapest, and Fotografiska in Stockholm, and his work is represented in numerous public and private collections, including MoMA, V&A Museum and Getty Museum. This year, PHOTOFAIRS were thrilled to exhibit Hugo’s work with Pekin Fine Arts (Hong Kong) in Shanghai. To read more about Pekin Fine Arts (Hong Kong), click here.