I spoke on Wednesday about Johsel Namkung’s “Intimate landscapes.” That seems almost a contradiction in terms. You expect to find intimacy in portraits, and today I’d like to talk about the very compelling portraits of John Delaney. But first we should consider what brilliant portraiture is all about. If you look at someone, if you converse with them, your eyes meet, and it is through eye contact that intimacy is exchanged and achieved. So when we speak about great portrait photography, we are speaking about the camera becoming the photographer’s intimate eye. The camera becomes joined with the photographer, it is now, to the subject, an essential element of the person with whom that (s)he is interacting.
John Delaney offers us a wonderful series of images of the “Golden Eagle Nomads of Kazakhistan.” In a sense this is travel photography. However, what Delaney has done is to set up a mobile studio tent on remote location in which he captures remarkable images of the Kazakhs. Nobody knows exactly when the Kazakhs tamed the Golden Eagle of Central Asia. Herodotus (484 B.C.E – 430 B.C.E) refers to nomadic eagle hunters in 5th Century B.C. Marco Polo (1254-1324) wrote about them in the 13th century. Genghis Khan is said to have had 5000 mounted Eagle Riders in his personal guard. In these pictures there is a mutual nobility to both the Kazakhs and their eagles, and there is an unpoken intimacy between them as well. These majestic eagles can attain seven foot wingspans. I want to particularly draw your attention to the marvelous gentlemen of Image #9. I don’t think that more perfect lighting in a portrait could be achieved. And the portrait of the adolescent girl Image #14 is just wonderful. You cannot help but wonder what her dreams are.
Delaney who was a master printer for Richard Avedon, before striking out on his own offers the desire to preserve the image of these noble people before they and their way of life (at least 2500 years old) vanishes forever as his reason for traveling to Kazakhistan to photograph these people. But if you continue to explore Delaney’s website you learn that you do not have to travel half way around the world to document vanishing ways of life. In his series “Hoboken Passing” Delaney documents the vanishing store owners of Hoboken, New Jersey a neighborhood “in transition.” These too are noble and proud faces.
Finally, I would like to point you towards Delaney’s gallery “Himalayan Portraits.” Once more we find that quintessential humanity that lies within all of us. I am especially bewitched by the portrait of (presumably) a mother and her two daughters in Image # 10.
John Delaney is a master of portraiture. His black and white (sepia toned) images of distant people seem quite intentionally to come from the nineteenth century. In this way they emphasize the distance, creating the sense that we are separated from them in both space and time. Of course, the essential paradox is that through their eyes we become intimate with Delaney’s subjects. They are of us.