Photo by Alfred Cheney Johnston
How much does a photograph really capture the essence of a person?
Photography is the art of definition. However objective or whimsical, measured or unfair, aloof or biased, experienced or amateurish the photographer, the eye of the camera determines the existence of a certain reality which then becomes for the viewer that reality, much like our histories become what we call history. No amount of learned skepticism succeeds entirely in diffusing the sense of conviction given by a photographic image. The mind knows that there are other ways of seeing, other aspects of that reality, other attitudes and poses. And yet the mind believes: “If the camera saw it, it must be true.” The photographic image is always definitive.
This is certainly the case when it comes to photographing people. We humans think that we have a single, unique face: photography disproves us. The myriad unique faces that, throughout our lives, are captured by the camera, from babyhood to that final face that we will never see, create a multiple, ever-changing face that can never quite be pinned down to one we can call uniquely ours. Who are these people? we ask, flipping through an album of our own faces. How can all these different features, tints of skin, looks and gestures, all be that single person we call “I”? Never was Rimbaud’s dictum so true as in the case of our portraits. The photographed “I” is always another.
But not any other. Across from our changing face, the photographer’s lens observes and chooses. The sitter may be the same one, over and over, altering position and attitudes according to the moods and seasons, but the eye of the camera captures one particular instant, one distinct face, one selected “I” from that plural subject. It may be that thanks to the perspicacity and skill of the photographer, seeing our portrait in black and white, or colour, fixed and framed, we arrive at an acceptance (or recognition) of a face we then can call ours. But behind every selected or official portrait are crowds of others calling out to the viewer: “Choose me! Don’t forget me! I too exist! I too am I!”
Portraits, we are told, are mirrors, and mirrors, as we know, always lie. Mirrors reflect what we wish or we fear might be reflected, and throughout the ages, in fairy tales and legends and moral fables, they have been the source of secret wishes, hidden faults, future visions, startling revelations about ourselves. Jews cover mirrors during mourning in order not to be distracted by seeking their mundane appearance at the hour of grief. Christians long saw in mirrors the emblem of our sinful vanity, and medieval iconography is full of devils holding mirrors for beauty to see that behind the rose is the worm that dieth not. For Islam, mirrors are symbols of self-knowledge, and under the name mir’ât hindiya (“Indian mirrors”), popular Islamic folklore attributes to the reflecting glass dangerous and dark forces, because it can reveal the inner workings of the soul. The great philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali reversed the image, and saw our souls as rusty mirrors that can no longer reflect the Creator’s splendour, except (as St. Paul said) “through a glass darkly.”
Religion, psychology and art have all taught us that our reflection, our face and our person (in all their ever-changing incarnations) stand for the plurality of the self. One of the Arabic words for “face,” wadjh, is often used to denote the person itself, as in “I came with my wadjh,” meaning “I came in person.” This identification stems from Aristotle, for whom the face was the mirror of the soul. If the Greek master was right, then the face is a deceitful mirror, telling us not to trust appearances. We wonder what Aristotle would have thought of the playful, silly, grinning man with a bulldog face (who turns out to be Winston Churchill), or the grim, gruff, haggard woman (who, we discover, is Mother Teresa). Photography, at its best, undermines our expectations.
A collection of photographic portraits, however, such as the ones that the National Portrait Gallery in London, for instance, routinely selects from its voluminous stacks, is not merely a social gazetteer, a choice of great and celebrated faces: it is, in a way, a twentieth- to twenty-first century chronicle of our own culture, of the men and women who shaped our imaginaire through words, forms, sound, images. Here are the architects, poets, photographers, playwrights, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians, even the odd millionaire or politician, who were the cast for the ongoing saga of our history. Like those colossal engravings with which the late Renaissance artists celebrated the triumphs of a king or emperor, depicting long pageants of personalities marching across a rolling and idealized landscape, we are faced with a choice of famous figures in order to celebrate (we might say) the triumph of the educated imagination. Wandering through such an exhibition, gazing into the faces portrayed, we recognize the eyes that taught us to see, the hands that taught us to touch, the lips that lent us the vocabulary with which to reflect on who and where we are today. Not everyone that counts is here, of course, and not everyone represented here holds a role as important as that of his or her peers, but all together, heroes and villains form an astonishing mosaic of our times.
In the twenty-third canto of Purgatorio, Dante alludes to the medieval conceit that the word OMO (man) is written on our face: the O’s are the eyes and the M the eyebrows and nose. For Dante’s contemporaries, our face tells what we are. This is close to what seems to be photographer’s intention when portraying a celebrity: to define not the formal identity of the subject but the subject’s intimate nature, the essential being, that ineffable point that holds the self together. Our everyday activities can be labelled to satisfy bureaucratic requirements, but everyone knows that this is not enough to express the intricacies and moods of our existence. Language, even at its best, never succeeds in transmitting the core, but an image (a photographic portrait, for instance) can sometimes carry from one person to another, from the one who is observed to the one observing, a shadow of that truth, a face full of meaning (that is not our own) floating up from the depths of a dark mirror.