19 August – 13 September 2015

Emma Thomson

You know we were matched on a very special day

Model, sitter or character? Emma Thomson’s negotiation between artist and subject

In preparation for her latest series of photographs, Emma Thomson asked a diverse array of potential male sitters to pose through matchmaking applications happn and Tinder. The photographs most certainly incorporate Thomson’s approach to portraiture, but the degree to which the sitter is also participating in their own representation is hard to determine. As on social media, there is a version of the self that the sitter puts forth, and the photographs are discussed before they are executed. The results are at turns intimate, moving, hilarious, vulnerable and sometimes bizarre. 

Applications (sorry, but I am still unwilling to adopt the stultifying and banal term ‘app’) like Grindr (the original LGBTI dating application), Tinder (its hetero equivalent) and even Cudlr (yes, you read this correctly), have altered human interaction, particularly dating and casual sex, to a radical degree. Once, an individual relied upon a carnation or another worn code for availability or type, not to mention going to the meeting place of choice of one’s own sexual disposition, in order to pick up. 

Grindr and Tinder take out the middle man entirely, allowing the seeker of X to swipe their way into a potentially good time. No wonder some commentators claim this has taken the fun out of the game. One has to admit, looking for somebody sporting a light blue (or even dark blue if you’re feeling a little adventurous) pocket square in a bar does involve a certain level of mystery and intrigue that the screen of a smartphone can lack. Using dating applications alters the traditional process of finding sitters (I have to note here that I vacillate between using the term ‘model’, ‘sitter’ and even ‘character’ when I think about Thomson’s work; there are elements of each at play). Here, each sitter’s engagement with Tinder implies a certain level of desire, whether for sex, relationships, or even a cuddle, and there is a level of creative negotiation that occurs between the artist and the model. Some models are photographed in their home, some at specific locations (the beach is always popular), but all take place in a predetermined locale that is agreed to by both the model and the artist. 

Thomson tells me that, in the early stages of contact with her sitters, she is frequently asked if she is ‘real’ or not, probably in response to her own (quite frankly) sexy profile picture, thinking she may be an advertisement for Viagra or a fake account. This is fascinating in and of itself, and again changes the online dynamic we have grown so used to. Behind the camera, Thomson reverses the gender norms that we have grown so tired of, and shakes them up with her deadpan compositions. The negotiation between Thomson and her sitters is fascinating, captured in each portrait.

In this context, each model has at the very least a passing familiarity with the representation of the self, through their engagement with social media. The profile picture on a Tinder profile is an incredibly important aspect of the application’s function, and many of these are selfies. The phone camera has become a part of the everyday exchange between millions of humanoids, and most people are now familiar with a kind of ‘curated’ collection of images of oneself (think about all of the photos your Facebook friends have posted of you that you didn’t like, and subsequently untagged).

Thomson sees this kind of selective representation of oneself as a kind of fantasy, or at the very least a construction, of oneself. A Tinder profile picture is the entire basis for whether you progress to the next level of possible engagement (that is, they approve and may wish to see more pictures or even read about your interests), or outright denial of the possibility. The selfie is obviously a massive part of online dating culture, but it has become so ubiquitous that the portrait somehow restores some kind of gravitas to the subject, not to mention the strange, wonderful potential possible in the exchange between artist and sitter. And nobody knows this potential like Emma Thomson.

Jonathan McBurnie, August 2015

Photos: Docqment