On Portraiture

When Jamie invites me to drive down the southwest coast of France from Arcachon to Biarritz, I bring my camera. He lives in a van and knows every road to Spain by heart.

It’s the beginning of a long weekend in May, and there’s no 7pm curfew in isolation. After parking in a nature reserve on the outskirts of Mimizan, we walk towards the beach through a forest littered with old branches. We are surrounded by pines, but the branches lay stripped dry and bleached white, like whale bones. Some have been assembled into well-fortified tipis, by either a children’s summer camp or a strange man who moves in the woods by night. I do not take any photos.

There are some people who are opposed to photography as an art. Typically, the argument is that photography is too easy. Point and shoot.

Technically, that’s correct. But you could make the same case for classic arts like painting: you brush colours onto a canvas. It doesn’t guarantee that your final product will be worth remembering. It just guarantees that you’ll have one.

Without a fresh roll of film, Jamie’s camera rests in the van, which has long faded from view. We climb the dune that separates forest from ocean, sand filling our shoes with every step. Panels of wood forming a hasty boardwalk are draped across it, stopping us from sinking in completely. We pause at the top to admire the Atlantic below us, our hair blowing straight behind us as if it were not there at all. The waves are grey and scatter white all over the place.

Jamie describes it as a mess. I have no idea how to read waves, except that they make me feel small and weak. He explains that when the wind blows east towards the beach, the sea is unable to focus, and tosses itself haphazardly towards shore.

We look at the wind forecast together, a premonition of how as the evening goes on, the little arrow on the screen will begin pointing north. Neither north nor east will allow for neat waves, the kind that make for ideal surfing conditions.

We descend to the ocean, and I take a photo.

Later as rain falls on the roof of the van, Jamie says that he doesn’t care if I sleep with someone else because he’s not attached to me. Our bodies are intertwined under the blankets, his body constantly emanating heat and mine sweating as consequence. My toes touch the baseboard, the only part of me still cold.

The candle flickers on the nightside table, unafraid of the falling blankets. Jamie’s face flashes red and vaguely reminds me of someone I used to know when I was younger. In those few seconds, he is more photograph than person to me. I would take a photo but I cannot see beyond the flame to find my camera. It’s the last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep.

We wake to rain, something I get used to. Our dishes from last night lay outside, cleaning themselves in the falling water. Jamie gets up to make himself a coffee and the steam from his coffeemaker billows in the van, evaporating into nothing. We’re both hungry but lack the energy that is typical of a wet Saturday morning, moving as slow as time permits.

As we travel further south, I realize that there isn’t much to distinguish between the beach towns that line the southwest coast. Everything falls on a gradient of cream white to pale peach, missing the bright colours that adorn the Riviera, and rightfully so. There’s nothing flashy to see on the sand coated miles that stretch from Arcachon to Biarritz. Casinos with blinking lights and sprawling resorts are best placed elsewhere. Fine dining is a far off thought; ice cream vendors and waffle stands pepper every town, nestled amongst surf schools and board rental shops.

Modest families with children who are partial to mild hikes through the pines take up temporary residence on this side of the Atlantic. Car parks are filled with camper vans taking advantage of the long weekend. France’s best surf spots bring forth vans full of mostly men, with the occasional woman among them.  

The backroad to Biarritz goes through the same pine forest that we’ve already been following for miles. Occasionally we wind through a tiny town and witness the closing motions of a local market, making me feel mildly melancholic. The occasional forgotten pepper or potato lie lonely on the ground, waiting for the rare gleaner to come across its path. There’s not enough colour left to be worth taking out my camera.

To Jamie, all markets are the same. He feels similarly about the cities we pass, yet drives the same stretch of road several times a year. We continue pushing on through the trees, rain still dripping from above.

When I look out my window, the individual rows of pines thud one after the other. The Landes forest is entirely man-made, a regional project ordered by Napoleon to rescue the area from its swamp-like state and harvest the wood that would be available for years to come. Pines were the sole type of tree planted; at exactly two meters apart in rows that span as far as the eye can see, they are easily prone to forest fires.

I take a photo with a slow shutter speed, watching them burn together as we drive through.

Approaching Bayonne, we find rolls of film in a supermarket off the highway and are ecstatic to refill our cameras. Jamie loads his camera in the parking lot and fires the first shot of me in the passenger seat, smiling awkwardly.

In John Berger’s essay No More Portraits, he writes that the era of significant portraits has ended because there is no longer the need to encapsulate one’s greatness on a single painted canvas. We have cameras now, and an endless amount of ways to frame ourselves. The act of representing oneself is no longer a privilege held for those of high social standing. Since the democratization of photography, we are both artist and subject, gazing and being gazed at.

Jamie pulls the van over into a clearing in the forest, a brilliant green in the wake of rain. We wade into its heart, our pants streaked with the water that brushes off the plants we stride through. Our cameras are clutched close to our chests, keeping them dry from the water that drips off the branches above.

With fresh rolls of film, we see everything in a new light, as if our gazes have been altered. We now look at everything and question whether it’s worth remembering. If it is, we raise our cameras and press the button. If it’s not, we choose to forget it.

We come across a hidden stream, its water the colour of copper. I look at Jamie twice and choose to turn away. He takes one shot of me, my yellow raincoat pulled over my head, unsure of how to pose.

There is always an exchange between photographer and subject. Unlike drawing or painting where the artist is given full creative autonomy, the subject has a level of control over how they will be portrayed.

I ask Jamie to take off his clothes and streak through the field. Without questioning it, he finds a dry patch of earth under a tree and throws everything into a pile. He steps gingerly through the tall grass and tells me to look away from his cold thus shrunken penis. I put my camera lens between us and listen to the sharp click.

We make it to Biarritz in the late afternoon on Saturday, a few hours before curfew sets in. The rain has just cleared and the boardwalk is crowded with families strolling hand in hand. The waves here are nicer than in Mimizan, allowing crowds of surfers to bob in the water. A few brave groups of friends sit along the wet beach, dark sand sticking to their jeans as they rise. The sidewalk is narrower than one would imagine of a bustling coastal city, and snippets of conversation float around our ears as we pass by.

We don’t take any portraits in Biarritz. Despite it being the objective of our trip, we only end up spending a few hours there, turned off by the crowds of people that flood its streets and beaches. It’s the exact opposite of Mimizan’s barren landscape, and is hard to take a photo without catching several strangers in the background.

We walk the sloped path along the Atlantic under the constant threat of rain, feeling like the weekend could last forever. We stop on a hill and look at the water below us. I’m not sure which way the wind is blowing, but I don’t think it’s towards us.

I put my camera to my eye. Jamie, dressed head to toe in black, stands out in monochrome against the grey-blue sea. According to Berger, in a photographic portrait we are exposed to the likeness of a person, but we remain “highly conscious of the fact that nothing can contain itself.”

With his back turned to me, Jamie could be anyone. Portraits are maybe better that way, lingering in anonymity. Perhaps that’s the best thing about photography; its abundance allows memory to live in fragments, representing quiet details rather than aiming for grandeur.

I take in the ocean, the rocks, the grains of sand caught in Jamie’s hair, and the space that stands between us. I press the shutter button and realize I have no film left.