Senta Simond’s new book shines a light on the nuanced relationship between artist and sitter
Happily, or regrettably – depending on your point of view – there’s no such thing as a formula for good portraiture. Which is not to say that image-makers throughout time have not tried; Rembrandt spent much of his 50-year career altering the precise angle from which he captured his own image in oils; and Andy Warhol’s Polaroids – his own preferred method for documenting those around him – have become ubiquitous since his stratospheric rise in the 1960s, others trying without success to emulate his methods.
Simply put, for portraiture to work, there must be a certain something that occurs between artist and sitter – a lightning bolt of mutual understanding so bright that it illuminates both. And on the rare occasion a photographer captures that split second through a lens, the magic of the moment seems to seep through the photographic paper, radiating out and filling the viewer, too, with its light.
All of which makes photographer Senta Simond’s use of the allegorical rayon vert – a rare optical phenomenon in which the descent of the sun beneath the horizon creates a surreal flash of green light in the evening sky, providing all those who witness it with a moment of absolute clarity – supremely apt. Simond follows in a fine tradition; she first encountered her titular concept thanks to Éric Rohmer’s iconic 1989 film of the same name, which follows a young French woman in her quest for summer romance, and the 1882-published Jules Verne novel that that film draws on. In both, the ‘green flash’ is an elusive and almost magical incident, slipping away as soon as it occurs.
Simond’s work, however, is altogether unique. Conceived over the course of her MA in Photography/Art Direction at ECAL in Switzerland, she photographed the women she knows – “they are my friends and ‘friends of friends’, some very close, that I have shot for ten years” – building a rapport so powerful that it is almost tangible. “Portraiture is the genre of photography that has always interested me,” she says. “I feel touched by looking at faces.” The peculiar flash of intimacy and emotion that illuminates her images – be it joy, or curiosity, or playfulness, or reflection – is the theme that underpins her portraits: “I feel it’s something I have to catch before the person is changing,” she continues. “I find [photography] is the best way for me to capture the emotion I’m looking for.”
The resulting works read like a paean to womanhood and the ineffable power of portraiture, and come together to form Rayon Vert, an artist book first created while Simond was studying and now republished by Kominek Bücher. The series is also on display at London’s Webber Gallery, where it fills the walls with a strength and softness that rarely coexist so harmoniously. Though it’s not necessarily harmonious while it’s happening, Simond concedes: “[Nonetheless,] I continue. Even when it’s hard, I prefer that something is happening, and it's more important to move forward.” All of which serves to prove that in one-on-one encounters seen through her lens, as on the horizons at which it is most often glimpsed, the green flash is a fleeting illusion – and an altogether more extraordinary one for it. “I cannot really predict what is going to come out of a shoot. It could also depend on the environment and light... inspiration is so temperamental.”