(Untitled) Butcher Boys

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis  is an Edinburgh-based photographer who is interested in contemporary portraiture and the representation of the male subject. 

‘Untitled’ (Butcher Boys) is a series of photographic portraits which emerged as a result of seven years of practice-led academic research. Art historian Richard Brilliant (1991) observes that traditionally, portraits represent the person depicted, to an extent, so that viewers are able to read the artisan tension from the image. To do this, Brilliant argues that portraits incorporate syntactical properties whose primary function is to signal an individual's presence by symbolic means, often highly concentrated, as long as the image has a proper name.

The symbolic meanings refer to the success, or otherwise, by which a portrait looks like the sitter. The naming of the person is also important and traditionally titles might include the person's age and occupation, their location and date the portrait was made. Objects from the sitter’s background may be included as a visual reference to the sitter's character or designation.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis, Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472, Three framed digital chromogenic prints, 59.40 x 84.10 cm, © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

My photographic series evolved through my expression of scepticism in the aura in portraiture, and offers a reductive surface as an alternative. These portraits were produced using a large-format camera. The film negatives used are the size of postcards and the camera renders great detail across a sitter’s face. The rare use of this old model of camera is important for a number of reasons. In my studio, I have noticed that using this camera invites a more formal and focused gaze from the sitter, who stares intensely at the camera lens and thus at the viewer.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis, Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472 (detail)

The young men I have selected for this series are between the ages of 18 and 24, a period in time when noticeable changes occur across the young men’s faces. This is most apparent when you look across a series of my portraits. This juxtaposition brings out detail that the viewer’s eye would otherwise not see. Most of my models were fellow students at Edinburgh College of Art, where I completed a practice-led research degree in 2015.

I chose men who had not been formally photographed in a studio before. The resulting tension in a portrait sitting is captured in my work. I hope that this uncertainty on the model's face adds a layer to the performance I have created in my portraits. The underlying tension, the dilating pupils, the slightly open mouth and a direct gaze into the camera lens add a layer to the erotic performance. This tension helps to focus the viewer's gaze as they are confronted with the work on a formal gallery wall.

The white butcher’s frock I dressed my models in is an attempt to pare away any individual identity. The use of sequencing in this series is designed to convey what I come to believe as the impossibility of the aura in a portrait.  My trilogy of typological portraits amounts to a set of devices designed to highlight the fluidity of a face, together with the fact that we can never truly understand the individuals depicted on a paper surface.

The sitter's hands are not on view. This draws attention to the off frame space around each portrait. As the viewer stands in front of this work, gazing at the sitter, the hidden hands imply some form of threat to the viewer who may consume these images as objects of desire. Ultimately, these portraits are difficult to read unless, as viewers, we detach our individual emotions from the surface of the photographs.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis, Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 375, Three framed digital chromogenic prints, 59.40 x 84.10 cm, © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis

An image from the trilogy 'Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472' is on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until October 2nd, as part of Looking Good | The Male Gaze From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud​

By Gerard Jefferson-Lewis, 14 September 2017