What’s so great? It’s the Triumph of the Medium. It’s a photograph and yet it transcends the realms of all painted portraits and presents, photographically no less, the imagination of the artist. Sudek has photographed the artist imagining what they will engrave on this engraving plate, which forms the “canvas” that reflects, by virtue of its metallic nature, the man (engraver) holding it. Furthermore, the brushed surface of the engraving plate produces a fuzzier, more blurry reflection than a mirror would and produces the hazy, “imagined” image which contrasts with the sharp, clear image of the hands holding the plate which represents the “real world” waiting for the imagination to tell it what to do. And further to the furthermore, it’s a portrait of the artist himself (engraver) and so the “imagined image” is the artist ruminating and musing on what image of himself he should present to the viewer. It’s a moment of deep contemplation and high deception! “Who do I want to be? And what can I get away with? Will they believe it?”
I ran across this image like I do with everything great I find on the internet, by accident while browsing the site, Graphicine, in its posting on Josef Sudek, a famous Czech photographer. The rest of his work is interesting and there’s a few I like but this one knocks the Mona Lisa off her chair. Compare the “enigmatic smile” of Mona with the “inner existential game” on Sudek’s portrait’s face.
And the hands. Both portraits feature hands in the foreground and its interesting what they contribute to the portrait. Sudek’s portrait is about to use their hands and establish the identity of the portrait as that of an artist (engraver).
I found some information about Sudek’s portrait on the Museum of Fine Arts Boston site’s exhibition of Sudek’s photographs:
The artist; given to Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo in the 1960s or 1970s; from whom purchased by the MFA, April 23, 2003
I take it the photograph is not one of Sudek’s most well known but I don’t know exactly how these things might be measured in the medium of photography. I think the Mona Lisa wasn’t such a big hit when it was first released either until “The Smile” became something everyone must take a look at.
In conclusion I guess I’d say that Sudek’s portrait is better described as the best portrait ever made rather than the best photograph. The medium doesn’t seem to be that big a deal and the similarities in artistic merit and “what makes it tick” artistically could be reproduced by hand in painting or drawing. M.C. Escher certainly drew some very realistic and optically complex things, all by hand. I’d call it, “Portrait of the Artist as an Imagination” or, following the existential overtones, “The Artist Invents Himself”.
From an algorithmic perspective it shows how great an automatic thing like a captured image can be. Of course it took a lot of planning and skill, but Sudek was able to express something deeply profound and artistic without the use of the hand-made, plastic medium of painting. In the end this piece of art’s merit lies in the image it presents us with and the photographic medium doesn’t detract from it even when compared with a great painter da Vinci and his legendary work, the Mona Lisa.
The image is what’s important. That’s what we see and what we should focus on.