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The Wandering Eye: Portraits, a Point of View

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Our blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are principals in the M (Group).
Portraits are a tricky thing.  They should be ‘art’—the first thing you should think is, “What a great painting / photograph / statue.”  Not “what a great (or terrible) ‘portrait’…”
So having a new puppy meant we had to call Valerie Shaff pronto to insure that Frankie, in all his youthful perfection, was saved for posterity.  Like children, dogs should be shot when they are young—they are cute, malleable, and they smile a lot.  And like children, close care must be given to their outfits, their hairdo’s, and their backgrounds.
Rural Intelligence StyleA bit of background: Sixteen years ago, Hermes commissioned a portrait of Pancho when he was about a year old as a surprise gift for me.  How sweet is this portrait?  It captured him perfectly at that point.  Pancho was an Old Soul… This photo went on to be included in Val Shaff and Roy Blount Jr.’s first book, If Only You Knew How Much I Smell You.  Then it was on a Hallmark birthday card (with the really, really lame ‘greeting’ “I’m so excited I could pee”… Who sat around a table at Hallmark and thought, “That’s a winner!”?)  I have loved having this portrait from Day One.

OK—a quick opinion re: family photos.  Me?  I like them in the library, the bedroom, the dressing room—but never (I have seen this! I swear!) in a dining room.  Sure, if you have your signed snap of Elizabeth and Philip, it can go in the living room—in a vermeil frame with coronet.  Or the single wedding photo or family group shot.  But not tables full of cheap frames with redundant imagery.  I weigh in on the side of less-is-more and less public is better than more public. 
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Since not many Texans are chummy with the Windsors, the Fiesta dress portrait remains the sign of Fine Lineage and Lone Star Royalty and holds pride-of-place on many a mahogany tea table.
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This modern duchess has a rather fascist motif—I think Napoleonic.
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In 1976, the Court of the Lone Star, mine was the Duchess of the Trans Pecos Vastness—her train covered in cacti and deer and antelope. “Neat but not gaudy,” as we say.
We had a client early in our career for whom the first thing on my suggestion list was, “Fewer photos of the children on the piano. If you simply turn to your right, you will see both of them—in real life!—roller skating in the front hall…”  That went over like a lead balloon.  I learned two things from that woman—don’t criticize people’s Help (what difference does it make to you if they aren’t good cleaners or are drunk at 10 a.m.?) and the less said about the kids, the better.  “That Christopher (age 4) is the cutest little boy I’ve ever seen.  He just chatters away, but I can’t understand a word he says.”  “He’s in speech therapy three times a week—no one can understand a word he says…”  Ooops.  (BTW, Christopher turned into the handsomest big boy and graduated from Yale.  Whew).

Back to the matter at hand.  Pet Portraits – Our friend Patty Dryden painted this box for us many moons ago—sweet, isn’t it?
So, the appointment was made, Val arrived, we confabbed and found a location.  Stately oaks and a glimmer of the Hudson behind—Hudson River School inspired and understated. 
Next we grab Frankie as he flies by and instruct him to “Focus.”  Right… Let the Games Begin….
Not even Eadweard Muybridge, 19th century ‘locomotion’ photographer, could capture that dervish on film. 
Val ran through her tricks—weird mewing sounds, a tossed stick, a tweaked tail—and each caught the attention of Frank for two or three frames.  We weren’t allowed to use treats as an inducement to Stay.  Val says you end up with a hungry/pleading dog face on film.
She’d snap two frames, then a butterfly would drift by and Frank would drift along—or bound away.
Since Val uses film (how lovely and retro), we didn’t have that digital luxury to just shoot and shoot and shoot pictures.  This forced the Humans to focus even if the adolescent Canine couldn’t.  Which was good for everyone; finite, two rolls and we were done.
Whereas Pancho was shot without collar, sort of ‘naked’ on a paisley shawl, Frankie, being outside, kept his collar on (sans reflective Petsmart ID tag—the sterling one has been ordered from James Avery in Texas).  Pancho’s ‘fragility’ (that face—he’s straight out of a Tennessee Williams play…) lent itself to an inside shot while Frankie the Clinically Insane needed some space to run.  F. got a bath the day before in the hope that his coat would settle-in overnight—and it did, sort of.  Indeed, that is his real coat—no back combing, no product.  The color is fantastic—white to strawberry blond to copper.  It is a source of great pride.

Me, I love animal portraits when they have stand alone ‘art value.’  Sadly, most don’t.  I look at the cork board above my desk, and I count five postcards of dog paintings and one cow—all real portraits of real animals. Not generic Spaniel Art…  Years ago, I found this black dog in Hudson while shopping with my mother.  We both loved this pooch.  She says, “I’ll take it.” I’m pleased—obviously, I thought she was buying it for me; then she asks me to ship it to Texas (Huh!?).  He is a handsome animal and well loved and well painted in life and for posterity.
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It goes without saying, the vast majority of pet portraitists are lousy. And that’s being way too kind.  Google ‘Pet Portrait’ images and tell me I’m wrong.  A favorite—this mutt (Those teeth. That stare. This dog is a meth freak.).  Reminds me of Police Portraits (aka mug shots, another google that entertains for hours!)
Check out Val’s website and the video of her photographing dogs in the window at Barney’s in New York and be amazed.  Then call her and book a portrait of a dog or, if you insist, a grandchild.  You won’t regret it…

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For One Stop Shopping, go south to Manhattan to the Frick to see, in one quick walk around, the crème de la crème.  I’d Googled Holbein to find his portrait of Sir Thomas More and found it is in the Frick.  I’d forgotten that one, but knew the other works by Ingres, Whistler, Turner, Bronzino (right), Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer, etc. cover portraiture in Western Art pretty darn well. 

Read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel this summer for a Tudor fix. It won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for last year. I dove right into it; others say, it takes a bit, then it clicks.  Thomas Cromwell is the hero and Thomas More features.

In our hemisphere, the oldest portraits might be the Moche civilizations pots from about 1000 years ago.  I’ve wanted one of these portrait pots for years. (Hint Hint - if anyone wants to get on my good side, I can definitely be bought.  As they say, “Easy, but not Cheap.”)  So realistic and forceful.  And OLD.

If I had a baby I would run, not walk, to beg Adam Fuss to shoot it… (Oops, an unfortunate—Freudian?—turn of phrase.).  These newborns in fluid are wonderful.  Check with our friend, New York photography dealer, Yancey Richardson—she might be able to organize it.
—Carey Maloney

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 07/07/10 at 04:24 AM • Permalink