“These individuals are at the battlefront
for marriage equality”
A PORTRAIT is a partnership and a performance. It is created between the artist and the sitter to be newly recreated by every viewer. A fly-on-the-wall documentary may capture images of people unawares, but this is not truly portraiture. For a portrait is about the face a sitter chooses to present and the way the artist, and later the viewer, interprets it. Large areas of the human brain are dedicated to the reading and analysis of physiognomy. In evolutionary terms, much depended (and still depends) on accurately assaying an individual’s character and intention. As Oscar Wilde wrote: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
Tatjana Plitt’s ‘Gay Warriors’ are portraits in the truest sense. They have a formality and considered intent that conveys depth while hinting at the complex ties that enfold these couples and families. At first glance they may seem very different from her earlier series, ‘Blaze’, which presented couples posing in the exaggerated attitudes adopted by the heroines and heroes whose artfully arranged ardour smoulders upon the covers of bodice-ripping novels. In those images, the imperfection of the couples – that which marked them out as real people – was set in contradistinction to the febrile fantasies of pulp fiction. Far from undermining the sitters, the images lent them great poignancy and power. What ‘Blaze’ and ‘Gay Warriors’ share is a profound belief in the value of real human relationships over caricature.
THE COUPLES and families in ‘Gay Warriors’ are posed in the style of 17th-century Flemish marriage portraiture; a genre that often depicted its subjects in the bedroom. At that time, the bedroom was the heart of the home. It was a place not only of rest and procreation, but birth, sickness, convalescence and ultimately death. The bed was the most expensive piece of furniture in the house; a ship that sailed the seas of life in a domestic ocean. And, being Dutch, the symbolism of temporal status and spiritual aspiration lurked among the trappings and ornament discreetly arrayed within each scene.
It is, of course, clear from the series title and from the evidence of our eyes that these couples share the same gender and one or both serves in the armed forces. This may be what first draws our attention. It is certainly the thread that weaves connection through the series, building a powerful statement about human worth and personal commitment that lays waste to the absurd notion of judging an individual’s value by their sexual orientation.
BUT I FOUND that the more I engaged with the dignified subjects of these understated portraits, the more that questions of gender or even military service began to fade into the background. What, finally, was uppermost in my mind – in that barely conscious assessment of pose, gesture and context that is hardwired into being human – was the primacy of interpersonal relationships in the meaning and function of community on which our wider society is based. Such relationships, in all their rich variety, are the bedrock on which rests the turbulent complexity of civil life: a foundation held firm in the emotional interlock of being. Love.
Images (from the top):
© Tatjana Plitt ‘Karen & Alli’ (detail)
© Tatjana Plitt ‘Emma, Zachary, Marshall & Taylor’ (detail)
© Tatjana Plitt ‘Victoria, Monica, Lillian & Thelma’ (detail)