Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Eyes of longing

Nov 28, 2019 - Matthew Papa

In elementary school, my class went on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember being a little intimidated and not quite knowing what to make of the things I saw. I felt quite small in this grand, expansive building with high ceilings. When we made it up to the floor with modern European paintings, I was suddenly jolted to some kind of recognition when I encountered Self-Portrait with Carnation by Otto Dix .


Relatively small at 19-1⁄2 x 29 inches, it nonetheless had a tremendous effect on me. Dix used oil and tempera on panel, an early Renaissance technique which lends richness and depth to the subject portrayed. Centered against a bright cyan blue background, a young male figure stares out at the viewer with an intense, confident gaze. He is handsome with angled features and a severe bowl haircut. He is turned slightly away from the viewer and holds a pink carnation in his beautifully rendered right hand. The textures of his corduroy coat invite careful looking, as the wide-wale in the fabric hints at the form underneath. By using this old technique to paint a modern subject, Dix has created a tension in the image that I felt but didn’t understand.


I can’t say for sure what it was about this painting, but it made me profoundly aware of myself and my own feelings. Most of the things I encountered that day garnered just the few seconds of my attention required to take them in. That was not the case with this painting. I wanted to stay looking at it and I enjoyed the feeling of being apprehended. Perhaps it was primarily my desire that kept me looking—already at this age I had inklings of my attraction to other boys, but I think there was something more in it than that. Also around this time, I had become aware of my own artistic inclinations. I began drawing with the seriousness of a person much older than me; I rendered an image of a cat so faithfully from a how-to drawing book that my siblings all asked for their own copy. I was likely identifying with the subject who was also the maker of the work .


This image always stayed with me. I am drawn to the confrontational and unsparing style of Dix’s portraits which is sometimes described as cruel and harsh, but I disagree. On the contrary, the vivid depiction reveals the particularities of the subject and it is our own judgment we project back onto the painting. In these works, the complexity of human life is not white-washed. Revealed are the struggles and miseries that define what it means to live.


In my portraits, I often depict my subjects gazing directly at the camera, and in turn, the viewer. When I am shooting, I don’t limit myself and have the subject look at me and look away. Often when going through my negatives, though, an image with a direct gaze will emerge as the winner. It is a conscious decision that I make in order, I believe, to recapture what I felt beholding and being beheld by Dix’s self-portrait. In making a portrait, I don’t think I am revealing someone’s soul. But it is important to me that my subjects are rendered with agency. Revealing their particularities makes them feel like real people.