Ion’s ‘Work on Portraits’ 2006
by Pamela Browne*

The three-quarter portrait of the slightly bent white-haired old lady steps, partially out of the right-hand side of the frame into a white void. While a part of her face and left arm have crossed the threshold, her white hair dissolves into the white space. She returns the viewer’s gaze with an all-knowing smile of satisfaction. For Russian literary and cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), the notion of threshold is a place to ‘make ultimate decisions, die or be reborn.’[1]
The background environment reveals a field of freshly turned soil ready for planting signifying fecundity. The ‘Old Lady’ is leaving to allow for new regeneration to take place. The three green trees on the horizon to the ‘Old Lady’s’ left are large and old, their spreading branches having weathered the passing of time. The earthy soil colours complement the claret colour of the ‘Old Lady’s’ dress and the cloudless blue Greek sky remains eternally bright.
The title ‘Old Lady in a Rush’ (2005) suggests to the viewer that she’s in a hurry to leave. She appears content to be leaving, her lined face expresses no self-doubt, tension or crisis. Leaving the fertile field, she finds herself on the border between two worlds: the higher world symbolised by the land she is leaving behind, and the lower world is the spiritual, nonmaterial world. This reflects Bakhtin’s notion of the threshold being where life begins and ends, where everything revolves and nothing ever loses touch with it—death and rebirth. Viewers may feel she embodies futility, but she illustrates dignity—a strange human kind of heroism.
Ion’s ‘Work on Portraits’ is an intimate portrayal of subjects from contemporary mainstream Athenian society. His subjects combine different genders, diverse cultures and ages with natural Greek surroundings. His representation of types reveals a broad range of personality characteristics and his appraisal of them has depth without stereotyping. The common denominator in ‘Work on Portraits’ is that all the portrait and landscape components are in natural light. The links between the people, places and elements are digitally constructed or enhanced. Technology does not determine his photography but embraces multiple concepts and articulates images and concerns associated with time/space, nature/culture, subject/object relationships, aesthetics, representation, memory and identity. For Ion, his work relates to (classical and surrealist) painting, the composition, saturated colour, lighting and in particular, the approach. For me, Ion engages in several critical discourses which include: Bakhtin’s notions of the threshold and dialogue as well as Walter Benjaman’s aura; performance and art theory.
A photographic portrait is not as simple as it may seem. A portrait is a memorial record it is also a penetrative device. Discourse in photographic portraiture is even more problematic. Portraiture can be analysed formally, but it still remains detached from the viewer’s own self-awareness. The human subject with their all familiar mannerisms and self-projections generates doubt about what constitutes natural human behaviour. The use of digital manipulation undermines the rhetoric of so-called objective ‘truth’ which has been such an important component of traditional photography’s cultural success—the loss of the real. However, digital images are not inferior to the visual realism of traditional photography. According to photo theorist Lev Manovich, ‘The digital image annihilates photography while satisfying, glorifying and immortalizing the photographic.’[2] Paradoxically, digital images are perfect—hyper-real, too real.
At first glance, 'Xenofon' with his confrontational almost menacing look, staring eyes, dark eyebrows, and neat moustache looks like a powerful political leader in a poster. But in this hyper-real portrait he is also like a Bollywood film star, the yellow, orange and pink skin tones reminiscent of the film-stars in old hand-painted Hindi posters. Xenofon the leader, the hero, occupies the left-hand side of the frame. In stark contrast is the misty background, evocative of a Bram Stoker ghost story, which obscures any sense of certainty for the viewer. Ion brings the old hand-painted Bollywood movie billboard, formerly considered 'low art' for mass consumption, into 'high art' and cultural discourse. The seemingly unusual scenarios recall Bakhtin's notion of dialogue, where the self embraces its own various voices to allow for growth and knowledge to occur.[3]
Digital imaging introduces fragmentation, uncertainty, heterogeneity and emphasises performance and a simultaneous process of historical (dis)continuity. It is an overtly fictional process.[4] As the name suggests, digital processes return the production of photographic images to the impulse of the creative human hand—to the digits. For this reason, digital images are closer in spirit to the creative processes of art than to the truth values of traditional analogical, indexical photography.[5]
According to Ion, ‘Beatrice’s’ creation, for example, was impulsive—pure instinct. He took several photographs of her under a cloudy sky in the garden of the Dutch Embassy in Athens. Originally, he planned a very conservative interior image of a girl’s profile in front of a round stained-glass window. When ‘Work on Portraits’ became an exterior project, he dropped his original idea. When reviewing his computer archive, he came across the cloud picture. ‘The rest is history’ he says: ‘Beatrice took me three minutes to compose’—it consists of three photos, a Cretan cloud, a Cretan sea horizon and the face—and several days for the light and colour manipulation. Ion states that Beatrice is a ‘contemporary’ Renaissance portrait and believes that ‘Beatrice’ emulates Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa.’ The pre-Renaissance like cloud halo above her head, the mastering of fine exquisite detail where reflections were manipulated in the service of illusion and the symmetrical composition transmits a sense of Renaissance classical harmony.
Like ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Beatrice’ returns the viewer’s gaze and possesses the infamous enigmatic smile, retouched to perfection—too real. The sense of mystery weaves the known with the unknown, rendering a timeless quality which reinforces the entwining of the psychological with the physical.
The face in a portrait, illustrates a contradictory rhetoric. While the image shows active story content, it allows the viewer to perceive the subject as an object in a certain static condition.
The face transforms into a kind of landscape and the photographer’s gaze directs the subjects.
An affinity is suggested between the individual’s image and her/his everyday life. The sitter/subject appears isolated in a performance which allows no prospect of change. Her/his body incarnates a lasting persona, whether functional or symbolic.
The preoccupation with the likeness of the photographic portrait often clouds the fact that an image of a person, however specific in detail, is, by definition, an abstraction.
A three-dimensional individual represented in a two-dimensional photograph automatically transforms into a symbol. In turn, a symbol that functions within a set of pictorial relationships, defines a metaphoric vision of human beings and their social and ethical relationships.
In this way, photographic portraits can be likened to myths, because they contain a wealth of information about the artist, sitter, and the cultural/historical moments within which they lived. Ion’s portraits convey this sense of mythology through the symbolic values that manifest themselves in pure forms and repetitive motifs such as clouds, horizons and diminishing trees.
The sitters for portraits appear as actors auditioning for roles in their own lives, and the picture shows the viewer the quality of their performance. The shutter freezes the possibility to obtain further knowledge about the subject. At best, the portrait intends to expose the human interior. The sitters usually attempt to convince the viewers that their appearance shows their deep inner selves. They convey this impression through a performance, but the viewer has no model of comparison. While the actor knows the difference between her/his own character and the character s/he is playing, the audience does not. In studying photographic portraits, the viewer often focuses more on the seductive impenetrability, the depths that are deliberately withheld. It is the face that conjures it up and embodies it.
Ion’s ‘Old Lady’ performs willingly for the camera and the photographer obviously encourages her. She has a very sophisticated awareness of the gaze and how it operates through representation. None of Ion’s actors have refused to pose for him so far though he is sure eventually someone will refuse. According to Ion, ‘people fancy modeling or maybe they fancy modeling for me. They are hardly ever instructed to perform as anyone or anything else, so I presume they perform as themselves. When they see the final photo however, they don’t feel it is them. I always tell them “it is another you!”’ As Bakhtin states:
‘“one own’s self”, [is] accessible . . . only through an active dialogic approach to one’s own self, [and this approach] . . . breaks down the outer shell of the self’s image, that shell which exists for other people.’[6]

Ion observes that his subjects act as if in a grand saga and play their roles in an ‘abstract kind of way.’ Likewise, his actors assert a degree of authorship in the work. For Ion, it is a ‘bidirectional creative procedure’ except that his actors strangely enough, do not seem to fully know or understand it. Ion’s creative process is confirmed by Bakhtin who claims that artistic creation is the paradigm for self‑creation. Although the artist’s own vision is the organisational centre for the various views expressed, the artist’s personal views are merely one voice of the many in the ongoing dialogue generated by the work. Moreover, the artist engages in a dialogic encounter with her/his self, the consciousnesses of the characters created embody voices from within the artist’s own consciousness. In creating these characters, the author interacts with internal voices in entirely new situations and contexts, thereby forcing reappraisal and reconceptualisation. Ion’s control as director/producer of this visual drama is apparent. The digital enhancement emphasises the theatrical performance of identity, genders, and sexualities.
The clothes, gestures, expressions bodies, and contexts convey socially coded information but are of secondary interest because the face does not obey any social programme. Fascinating portraits are those which are puzzling such as ‘Beatrice’, ‘The Hunter’ or ‘The Storm’ or those who seem concerned with something else such as ‘The Visitor’ or ‘Old Lady in a Rush.’ The face conveys random meanings distinct from the signs which conventionally narrate or objectify the personality.
It is no coincidence that Ion’s favourite photographer is Polish-French photographer of high fashion and celebrities, Jeanloup Sieff (1933-2000) who supposedly avowed a fidelity to the frivolous and superficial. For Sieff, the impulse that leads a photographer to make an image is something that cannot be entirely shared with anyone, even if fully explained. In short, the intention of the creator has nothing to do with what is perceived by the viewer. What remains is a surface quality—skin, paint, sky or wall—that lives its own life and belongs to everybody. Independent of what the subject apparently signifies, for Sieff the sheer pleasure of looking and touching the final print is the true essence. Sieff believed that the notion of superficiality is critical and masquerades as a ‘defense against the gravity of things, a manner of discretion.’[7]
Ion uses the conventional eye-level point of view. No sense of ‘Socialist Realism’ heroism is apparent except in a few portraits which are shot from low vantage point like ‘The Dreamer’, whose mind seems to have drifted out of the frame.
Most of Ion’s works are similar in size, 80X60cm, although his self portrait and the portrait of ’Roger’ are 40x30cm. Sometimes his subjects dominate the whole picture space overshadowing background, for instance, ‘Takis’, ‘The Visitor’, and ‘Lefteris.’ Although ‘Takis’ face may trace the effects of time, weather and hard out-door work, and underline life’s experiences it also conveys a measure of vitality and strength. His head scarf for example, reveals how ‘Takis’ has responded to the unrelenting sun, one of a myriad of forces that shaped his life. ‘The Visitor’ is an incredibly dynamic shot. His chiseled features and his rugged handsome looks are reminiscent of the 1950s like he’s a new James Dean character or an earthbound superman from the planet Krypton. Ion combines an on-the-road, charismatic beatnik with superman’s strength. In his ‘Work on Portraits’ Ion does not emphasise the environment of his sitters, but the environment complements the subject. ‘The Hunter’ for example, may be staged but the foreshortening of his body is quite startling. He would pounce out of the frame if he was not contained by it. He looks like a wild animal, waiting for the perfect moment to attack his prey.
Digital manipulation also relieves Ion of any so-called responsibility when it comes to, for example, his images of children which he takes out of the private realm of the family album and puts them into the public arena.
Representations of the child in contemporary photography can perturb the viewer. In Western society the power of seeing and being seen cannot be underestimated. Contemporary theory and culture have underlined the importance of the gaze in the formation of the subject individual in her/his world.
Ion is aware of how some people interpret child figures in representational art so to avoid misinterpretation he ensured that the parents/relatives of the children were present at the photographing. Although images of the child can easily be assimilated into more sinister contexts, this should not be used as an excuse to foreclose on or censor images of children.
Ion is sensitive to the contemporary debates concerned with representations of the child in photography. Far right moral panic would incite the viewer to regard, for example, the African ‘Boy with a Ball’ as provocative. It is a vertical shot of a young boy standing on pebbles on the beach shoreline with the sea and sky in the background. He has an almost manly-like stance and holds a white ball with black stars below waist level revealing parts of his red bathing shorts. The contrast of the white and dark skin colour is telling. He looks perplexed or embarrassed about something he has done or not done. His facial expression is hard to read—he does not look comfortable. Yet discomfort is also very revealing. For example, when someone looks as if they feel ill at ease, discomfort can be the truth of someone.
The image of the little ‘Chinese Boy’ dressed in a rose coloured shirt and trousers is indeed playful—he definitely performs for the camera and makes his mark on the world: a world which he desires to be part of. In the eyes of the child, the camera is performative too—it can capture a pose and record fantasy.
Interestingly enough, Ion creates an ‘aura’ around the young boy. In Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), the author states that the camera dispels ‘aura’, the ritualistic function of the work of art, through reproduction—uniform, precise mass produced copies, and rationalised form.[8] For Benjamin, photography is neither art nor non-art but rather is a new form of production that transforms the whole nature of art. ‘Chinese Boy’ positions the subject as a participant in the picture-making process. In this way, Ion and his subject manipulate, through self-consciousness or preconscious desire, an aura for the viewer. It is the viewer’s desire to see the aura, to believe in its substance that makes it credible.
This notion is also apparent in ‘Lefteris.’ It parallels Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ and is mirrored in Paul Klee’s painting ‘Angelus Novus.’ Benjamin’s angel of history is propelled into the future/progress by a storm, a pile of debris before him growing skyward. He wants ‘to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.’[9] Like Benjamin’s angel, ‘Lefteris’ eyes are staring and he is contemplating deeply. Unlike the angel of history whose ‘face is turned toward the past’, ‘Lefteris’ looks determinedly forward and leaving behind him a burning catastrophe.[10] The blatancy of so-called aura also introduces what Benjamin refers to as quasi-religious fetishism.[11]
Ion also engages Benjamin’s notion of ‘the aura’ where the subject is inhabited. In ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931), Benjamin praises pre-industrial photographers, such as Nadar, Stelzner, Pierson and Bayard, for their ‘high level of photographic achievement.’[12]
He suggests that these early photos, with their oval shaped images and predominance of shadows, had an aura which they subsequently lost due to commercial photographic exploitation by French actor turned photographer Eugène Atget—it prefigures the ‘healthy alienation’ Benjamin recognised in surrealist photography.[13] Aura can also appear when the sitter stays within her/himself when s/he keeps a distance. For instance, ‘Wendy’ and ‘Beatrice and the Bee’ reflect this idea as they look as if they are part of theatre scene.
Ion’s work shows passion, obsession, surprise, energy, something visionary and experimentation. Apart from his technical proficiency, he is creative and flexible. The art of his portraiture shows his good sense of rapport between the person in front of the camera and behind it. This body of work makes up part of his first solo show and celebrates the meaning encapsulated by photography as performance—a performance of desire which, as Bakhtin would say, is in the perpetual process of becoming, concerned with change itself that ‘is never finished, never completed.’[14]


*Pamela Browne has a PhD in Photography and Critical Theory from Monash University, Australia and is a photographer, critic and historian of photography and visual art. She also teaches photography, visual art and critical theory.

Ion’s ‘Work on Portraits’ 2006 ©Pamela Browne, January 2006

[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, (ed. & trans.) Caryl Emerson, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984, p. 171.
[2] Lev Manovich, ‘The Paradoxes of Digital Photography’ in The Photography Reader, (ed.) Liz Wells, Routledge, London, 2003, p. 241.
[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, (ed. and trans.) Caryl Emerson, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984, p. 171.
[4] Lev Manovich, ‘The Paradoxes of Digital Photography’ in The Photography Reader, (ed.) Liz Wells, Routledge, London, 2003, p. 241.
[5] Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography and History, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachuttes, 2002, p. 134.
[6] Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 287.
[7] Frank Horvat Interview with Jeanloup Sieff, ‘Frank Horvat - Jeanloup Sieff’ Paris, June 1987, (trans.) Charles Martin, Department of Comparative Literature, Queens College, City University of New York, September 2003,, p.1/13.
Benjamin writes: ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art . . . To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, (ed.) Hannah Arendt, (trans.) Harry Zohn, Fontana Press, London, 1992, p. 215, p. 217).
[8] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, p. 249.
[9] Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p. 249.
[10] As W. J. T. Mitchell points out, that ‘to hold onto the view of photography as either art or nonart in the traditional sense of the word is to fall into some sort of fetishism’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm’ in Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986, p. 183). See also: Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’ in One Way Street and Other Writings, (trans.) Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Verso, London, 1985, p. 241; Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’
[12] Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, p. 246.
[13] Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, p. 249.
[14] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, (trans.) Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, Indiana, (1968), 1984, p. 317