An Excess of Possibility - Paul Roth

Debra Friedman’s Bermudian portraits are both true to life—faithful likenesses of teenagers from this idyllic North Atlantic island, photographed in its parishes and villages—and deeply mysterious evocations of metamorphosis. This duality of effect lies at the emotional heart of her aesthetic, a concurrent exploration of surface and depth. Friedman’s portraits of the young are graceful, placid, and purposeful, reverent of her sitters. But they also convey awkwardness, disquietude, emotional turbulence, and indetermination. In the faces and bearing of her subjects, we see something fleeting but universal: the restless passage between childhood and adulthood, a state of transition from the familiar to the unknown.

Boys & Girls Brigate, Saint Paul’s Church Hall, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Boys & Girls Brigate, Saint Paul’s Church Hall, Pembroke Parish, 2015

Friedman has realized portraiture projects depicting children and teenagers throughout her career. Invited to serve an artist’s residency in Bermuda, she found herself drawn to the area’s young men and women, to their distinctive character and beauty. She sought them out as she bicycled around the island, approaching them as prospective collaborators, describing her project, and inviting their participation.

Berkeley Institute Prefect, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Berkeley Institute Prefect, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Angle Street, Community Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Angle Street, Community Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015

A typical session would begin spontaneously, in the immediate location where she found her subject, though some shoots were prearranged. Using a handheld camera, engaging her sitters with disarming casualness, Friedman photographed island teens in the hallways and yards of schools, as well as at chapels, clubs, sports fields, fast food parking lots, military camps, and in their home neighborhoods.

Lean-To, North Shore Road, Hamilton Parish, 2015
Lean-To, North Shore Road, Hamilton Parish, 2015

She generally depicted her subjects at full length, sometimes only at head and shoulders, but always situated within familiar surroundings. Some are posed individually, and others appear together with friends or in small groupings.

Bermuda Youth Rugby Practice, National Stadium, Devonshire Parish, 2015
Bermuda Youth Rugby Practice, National Stadium, Devonshire Parish, 2015

Though the resulting portraits have a strong quality of formality and inevitability (and are reminiscent in that sense of Diego Velázquez and other 17th century portraitists who painted children as adults-in-waiting), they also seem impromptu, stilled from the flow of time, as though Friedman has simply pressed the pause button on her subjects’ lives.

Exam Day, Cedarbridge Acadamy, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Exam Day, Cedarbridge Acadamy, Pembroke Parish, 2015

Each sitter regards the photographer (and through the camera, the viewer) with unwavering deliberation. Again and again we see a steady gaze, engaging us with evident curiosity and openness.

Bermuda Heritage Worship Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Bermuda Heritage Worship Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Border, Dellwood Middle School, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Border, Dellwood Middle School, Pembroke Parish, 2015

One senses a torrent of contradictions—between assertiveness and uncertainty, calm and anxiety, trust and guardedness. And we feel the unbearable tension between fitting in and standing out. We can easily imagine these young people pushing forward to adulthood, or pulling backward into the sanctuary of childhood. The clothes they wear represent the institutions that shepherd these years of transition: middle school outfits, their Sunday best for church, and uniforms for military service.

Recruit, Bermuda Regiment, Warwick Parish, 2015
Recruit, Bermuda Regiment, Warwick Parish, 2015

The great American photographer Richard Avedon once renounced a portrait series he made on young antiwar activists: “I photographed hundreds of people in the late ‘60s peace movement. And none of [the portraits] stand up. There’s something so simple about being young. It’s so easy to be beautiful… There’s no resonance. No contradiction.” This unequivocal declaration now reads as overstatement, arising from disappointments specific to his own undertaking.

Recruit, Bermuda Regiment, Warwick Camp, 2015
Recruit, Bermuda Regiment, Warwick Camp, 2015

In fact, there are extraordinary tensions and considerable drama in the passage from youth to maturity, and many portraitists have reveled in the challenge of representing this transit. Friedman’s portraits echo with such complexities and hidden meanings, even—especially!—in the paradisal surroundings of Bermuda, and in the unlined faces of the young. There’s what we see; and then, beneath the surface, we sense the undercurrents.

Dellwood Middle School, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Dellwood Middle School, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015

English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, in his 1938 treatise The Principles of Art, suggested that portraiture’s function of verisimilitude, the accurate likeness of a sitter, was secondary to a painting’s evocation of inner life, of intimate connection and personal history: “When a portrait is said to be like the sitter, what is meant is that the spectator, when he looks at the portrait, feels as if he were in the sitter’s presence.”

Cornerstone Bible Fellowship, Devonshire Parish, 2015
Cornerstone Bible Fellowship, Devonshire Parish, 2015

In other words, the portrayal’s function runs deeper than mere transcription, and a portrait succeeds (for lack of a better word) when it describes something significant, something profound, whether universal or specific—familial bonds, class belonging, or an emotional register or mental state that illuminates the experience of the subject. Traces from the past, evidence of the present, hints toward the future: all can, as Bob Dylan wrote in his song Visions of Johanna, “howl in the bones of her face.”

Friedman’s Bermudian portraits draw on two distinct traditions within representation of the young: the convention of childhood as everlasting, to be celebrated and preserved as an ideal condition of freedom and discovery; and the artistic imagining of youth as a state of incipience and emergence, an embryonic passage from innocence to experience.

Bathers, Elbow Beach, Paget Parish, 2016
Bathers, Elbow Beach, Paget Parish, 2016
Couple, Victoria Park, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Couple, Victoria Park, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015

Against their Edenic surroundings, her young subjects seem perpetually young, still in a fledgling phase, incandescent and pure; but growing wise, passing into evident maturity and self-possession. Simultaneously hesitant and confident, with both reserve and bravado, these teenagers seem at once real, the sum of their experience; but also symbolic, a series of quiet mysteries presented for our interpretation.

Mosque Muhammad, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Mosque Muhammad, Pembroke Parish, 2015

As such, we understand Friedman’s project best when we see her subjects as representing two realities, theirs and ours. For the children, we imagine, this act of representation is a passing moment, the record of a single instant, seized from the flow of their lives. For the viewer, however, at least for this viewer, our impression is the more resonant and consequential. For us, these portraits represent a longing, a dream of youthful innocence from the nostalgic vantage of adulthood; and a lamentation for the loss that attends our own, now hazy memories of our own passage through childhood.

Angle Street, Community Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015
Angle Street, Community Center, Pembroke Parish, 2015

Caught in the strange space of passing time, their forward motion briefly suspended, Friedman’s young Bermudians are figures in photographic amber. The portraitist has beautifully captured their passage through the hopeful traverse of maturation, toward separation from the nest and a future of perfect possibility.

After School, Church Street, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015
After School, Church Street, Hamilton, Pembroke Parish, 2015

With the sadness of impermanence, with the firm knowledge that there’s no going back, we watch them make their way, these adolescents in paradise, negotiating the liminal space separating emergence and arrival, becoming and being—following their journey as they finally arrive at whatever comes next.

Debra Friedman

Debra Friedman is an established and internationally exhibited photographer and educator living in Toronto, Canada. She is the recipient of numerous awards from The Polaroid Corporation, The Canada Council and The Ontario Arts Council and is represented by The Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pende Fine Arts in Toronto.

Paul Roth

Paul Roth has over 25 years of experience working with some of the most important photography collections in North America. Previously, he served as Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; as Executive Director of The Richard Avedon Foundation in New York; and as archivist of the Robert Frank Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He is author and co-editor of Gordon Parks: Collected Works (Steidl, 2012), and author and editor of Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power (Steidl/Corcoran, 2008).