… what I am intrigued by is her presence in this portrait, in what is being exchanged between her and Vermandel, in what she ultimately gives to it, and what she is holding back – all of which will forever remain elusive, no matter how much I ponder it.
This portrait by Eva Vermandel of her cousin Eef has been a companion for me for over a decade now. I first encountered it as a budding photographer, sometime around 2010, on Vermandel’s website – it was part of her series entitled Splinter, which became a book of the same title in 2013. At the time, Vermandel, who was born and raised near Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, but had relocated to London in 1996, was getting long overdue recognition in her home country for her commissioned portraits of celebrities. Great as they are, I was far more intrigued by the quiet and understated, yet often slightly charged images in Splinter, and by this specific portrait of Eef in particular. It showed me that meaningful and lasting work could be made within one’s own personal environment.
While the portrait demonstrates the traits of a formal session, at the same time it feels like a spontaneous snapshot; a portrait made swiftly, on the fly almost; Vermandel sensing or anticipating the arrival of an image, recognizing the low and painterly light, asking her cousin to hold still for a second. It might explain the perfect position of her left arm, which seems almost too relaxed for a deliberate pose. And then there is the sandwich: would this have been left in if it had the intention of being a more formal portrait? Or was this exactly the point? Either way, I tend to agree with the critic Vince Aletti that a good portrait is about being in a given space “with that person, and communicating on a level that goes far and beyond simply snapping a picture.” Aletti wrote this about the portraits of Peter Hujar.
I don’t know who Eef is or what she stands for. Nor do I know what context this photograph was made in (a typical family garden gathering, I would guess, which for me has a distinct Flemish feel to it). And to be honest, I don’t want to know; what I am intrigued by is her presence in this portrait, in what is being exchanged between her and Vermandel, in what she ultimately gives to it, and what she is holding back – all of which will forever remain elusive, no matter how much I ponder it.
Though fixed in a singular moment, this portrait does not feel constricted by time. Eef, right there in that backyard and in that ordinary moment, just is. As a portrait, then, what it seems to convey most of all, is that it has nothing to prove or nothing to claim. It just is.
But if there is indeed this distance between me and the portrait, this space of ambiguity and shifting uncertainty, then I wouldn’t want it to be removed or crossed, as it is exactly within that space that everything that makes a photographic portrait interesting happens. One step further away, and Eef looks like she is at ease and smiling; a step closer, and you’re not so sure anymore of what might be going on inside her head. Perhaps even more than the presence of the person in it, a portrait is about that space between the subject and the viewer, and the type of air – its stillness, its density – it holds.
I find that there is a peculiar balance in this portrait, a balance between tension and harmony. Tension in images often comes from the edges, holding a simple or complex geometry in place (notice how the rain pipe in the upper left corner mimics the right arm); harmony, or a sense of being grounded, usually comes from the centre of the image, radiating from its core (for me, here, that is the sandwich). This balance is inviting; it gives the portrait a certain visual casualness, a familiarity that allows for an easy connection with the image at first glance. It is only later that I become aware of the aforementioned distance; that space where little elements in the photograph may differ in meaning depending on where you stand, the space where the portrait gets its charge. If at first I thought this portrait was open and revealing, it actually is not (are they ever?).
Though fixed in a singular moment, this portrait does not feel constricted by time. Eef, right there in that backyard and in that ordinary moment, just is. As a portrait, then, what it seems to convey most of all, is that it has nothing to prove or nothing to claim. It just is. And perhaps it is only by this profound sense of being, that not only a portrait can last, but also that it comes the closest to its subject as it was, right there and then. As a viewer, that is the mystery we are left with.