Over the years, Peter Lavery’s photographic work has taken him virtually to every corner of the globe. During this period, he has set aside time to make portraits for himself of people he met in his travels and who interested him not as types but as individuals. The result of this passion is Of Humankind, a compelling gallery containing, among others, Japanese Geisha and Xingu tribesmen, Australian cowboys and indigenous Greenlanders, New Guinea warriors and Masai herdsmen. The images are set against a simple background, a device as old as photography itself, as Lavery points out. ‘I wanted to playdown the exoticism of my subjects’ he writes. ‘I knew that I was interested in the being under the body of paint or feathers and primitive weapons’. As a photographer, Lavery is exacting and demanding. An abiding concern is to keep himself out of the work so as to capture the simple, essential human character of his sitters. ‘Pervading all the pictures is that sense of wonderment surely experienced by those pioneering travellers who first brought back haunting documents from far-off places. Lavery’s portraits remind us of Cartier-Bresson’s remark that photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and which no contrivance on earth can bring back.’ Robin Muir. INDEPENDENT MAGAZINE
My Portraits – Peter Lavery
These portraits treat the human face and what is in it as the sole issue. From the start, I try to isolate the person being photographed from any competing background that will distract the viewer’s eye. At the same, to keep the sitter at ease (thereby allowing him or her to reveal everyday moods and emotions), I held my subjects as close to their surroundings as possible.In Brazil, my black velvet background was many times hung by the very doorways of the tribesmen’s thatched huts. In Greenland, amongst the Inuit hunters, I draped my cloth over the nearest ice outcrop. In each case, the sitter was not on my territory but on his own. In the finished picture we may see him on his neutral background, but for his part he is looking out on his immediate, everyday world.
On reading this paragraph, I am reminded how close to an obsession has been my concern with keeping myself out of the portraits I make. And yet only the other day someone who knows my work well and is also aware of my abiding aesthetic precept remarked after studying a number of my photographs in succession that she recognised little bits of me, certain traits or quirks, in them. Have I come short of my ideal, then? I hope not. Still the observation – no doubt kindly meant and in no way a damning criticism – brings to mind those lapidary words of Jorge Luis Borges, who noted that –
A man sets himself the task of depicting the world. Year after year, he fills a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and people. Just before he dies, he discovers that out of this patient labyrinth of lines emerge the features of his own face. Jorge Luis Borges
I ponder this revelation; it makes me uneasy but perhaps the import is salutory. There is a mystery in all art that is beyond us fully to direct or control. Knowing this, I am cheered.