Introducing: Kevin Breathnach


Kevin Breathnach is the literary editor of Totally Dublin. His criticism also features in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, The Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. He is also a fine essayist; we’d especially recommend This is Not the Deal (on the fine print), Stalker/Zona, and Pont Blank (on modernist photographic tradition), all in The New Inquiry. For gorse, Kevin turns his gaze to the artist portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

I’m not sure Cartier-Bresson would have agreed with Dorethea Lange’s notion that every photo-portrait is a self-portrait. I don’t believe he saw anything of himself in his portrait of Louis Aragon, for instance. I can’t think he saw much of himself in his visions of Pound or Capote or Mauriac either. There are certain sitters, however, with whom he clearly identified. Their portraits speak to this. Like Cartier-Bresson, Arikha absorbed the lessons of his early artistic influence (Abstract Expressionism) before breaking out on his own to depict life as it was lived. It was not ‘a return to figuration’, he said, but the figure had certainly returned. He understood texture and he understood geometry. He worked only in natural light and he finished a painting in one session. His artistic practice, grounded in immediacy, was spoken of as being directly analogous to Cartier-Bresson’s instant décisif, that single moment when, the photographer believed, the world opened up and bared itself in flagrante. ‘I prowled the streets all day,’ wrote Cartier-Bresson, ‘determined to “trap” life — to preserve life in the act of living.’

It is in this light that the portrait’s internal logic starts to grind to its conclusion. The positioning of Arika’s self-portrait invites the viewer to think of it not as a painting but as an image reflected in a mirror. The bottom left of the frame has become a mirror in which the figure on the right of frame is reflected. The spaces of foreground and background are very clearly delineated: they are quite literally bordered by the portrait’s (un-bordered) paintings. Such a clearly marked division has the effect of flattening both planes, the foreground especially. Under this sort of scrutiny, the notion that one figure in the foreground could be the reflection of another figure in the foreground becomes implausible. Yet our exploded readings linger on (they always do). For us, there is still a mirror in the left of the frame. It is facing the camera. If it is facing the camera, then its reflection must belong to the photographer. If the reflection belongs to the photographer, then its resemblance to the subject of the photograph (still to right of the frame) is uncanny. He must be the photographer himself and this must be a self-portrait. (‘Photography is a means of appropriating something,’ wrote Sontag.) As our exploded readings start to disintegrate (they always do), our understanding of this portrait as a self-portrait adds a further richness to the picture. The image to the left of the frame, which we imagined and have now un-imagined as a mirror, is cast en abyme as it once again assumes its status as a work of art. Is it a study for the photograph in which it appears? Or has this photograph somehow caught itself in the very process of developing? It would not surprise me. This is, after all, a portrait that develops as none of the others do. Why did Cartier-Bresson go to such lengths to make it so?

Issue one of gorse is available now.