Leaving his fingerprints

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For more than a decade, Chuck Close has made large-scale paintings whose subject has been how the human face appears to the camera. He gets it across that his subject is not people, by painting meticulously all the changes of tone and focus characteristic of a close-up photograph.

The message these paintings carry is that the camera is best suited to capturing the strangeness of strangers. The scale and finish of Close's big paintings tell us that all of his attention has gone into the process of making a picture, with little or only incidental thought of the human subject's appearance. His pictures are really anti-portraits in the sense that they portray the most generic facts of human individuality, amplifying none of the expressive details that might suggest personal identity.

Close documents the appearance of his sitters (who are usually his friends or relatives), or of their photographs, in such a way that his paintings represent people as pieces of the physical world. His work is not a personal vision but an effort to make explicit the positivistic bias of the camera's supposedly objective view.

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In recent years, Close has been experimenting with various ways of rehumanizing photographic information about the human face. The most resourceful and significant technique he has hit upon is the direct use of his own fingerprints.

In ''Arne (second version),'' for example, Close has used his original photograph as a map of gray tones to guide his slow assembly of the image with innumerable touches of a finger moistened with lithographic ink. What he has done is subject a photograph to a process of hand-mediation.

The final image has the photograph's feeling of instantaneousness and nearly its range of grays, but the surface of the page flickers with the artist's touch in a way that no photograph ever can. The instantaneous look of the photographic image belies the painstaking process of accumulating fingerprints precisely on the page. The fingerprint technique breaks the single photographic act into countless drawing decisions.

There is some wit in Close's technique, for he has made literal the popular notion that an artist's handiwork bears his characteristic manner of execution, his ''fingerprints.'' At the same time, he has devised a way of making drawings without line and without traditional drawing tools.

It is literally true, as well, that his fingerprint drawings have a touching quality not seen in his large paintings. The technique itself has a constancy of scale not inherent in painting or photography. And the legibility of the fingerprints is a constant reminder of the pictorial subject's humanity.

Finally, there is a kind of childlikeness, almost an innocence, to the fingerprint technique that seems to attest the artist's reluctance to judge the people he pictures.

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