Faces and intentions
I LIKE exhibitions that raise more questions than they answer, exhibitions that I leave but that don't leave me. I recently saw such an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unpre-tentiously entitled ``Faces from the Collection,'' it consists of a mere 46 photographs of people who ``represent a synoptic view of the face of our century, a period about as long as the lifespan of a healthy man,'' according to Maria Morris Hambourg, associate curator of prints and photographs, who organized the exhibition. Part of the impact of this exhibition derives from its extraordinary compression. A survey of almost a century which concentrates such a small number of photographs in such a small space forces a perception of similarities and contrasts, congruities and incongruities. It also inspires a meditation upon the timelessness of the human visage amid the infinite variety of its stylistic trappings and photographic renderings. Most provocatively, it raises questions about the ambiguous relationship between the photographer and his subject, the photograph and identity.Skip to next paragraph
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For example, what is the difference between a photograph of a face and a portrait? Superficially they would appear to be the same, but a close comparison of these photographs unmasks the photographers' variety of intentions in taking them. And it is the photographer's intention that ultimately determines whether a photograph of a person belongs to the category of face or portrait.
Consider Edward Steichen's photograph of Alfred Stieglitz, which clearly belongs to the classical tradition of portraiture and also reflects the artistic concerns of the Photo-Secessionist movement. It is evident that Steichen's intention is to reveal the essence of his subject by capturing that fleeting fusion of pose and expression that together produce an epiphany of character.
Dorothea Lange's intention in ``Cotton Picker, Elroy, California'' is quite different. If the focus of the portrait is on the individual, then the focus of the face is on the universal. Lange, who compassionately recorded the anguish of the unemployed and migrant workers in California during the '30s, is less concerned with this particular man as an individual than as a symbol. He is an archetype of his kind, the personification of hard labor, hard times, and hot sun. The fact that half his face is covered makes it no less of a face; Lange seems to intimate that the worn, weather-beaten hand that conceals the lower half is really more expressive of his identity.
There are other photographs of faces in this exhibition in which the intention is to represent a state of mind, evoke an atmosphere or mood, or illustrate a formal concern. In all these photographs of faces, as distinguished from portraits, the photographer is reaching beyond his immediate subject and is transcending the individual to make a broader statement.
That the photographer is using the subject rather than treating the subject as an end in himself or herself raises another disturbing question about the relationship between the photographer and his subject, a question that has not only a psychological dimension but also a moral one.
The issue here, and the danger, is one of dominance. There is something about the human face that demands reverence and respect, and when a photographer flouts those basic attitudes, no matter how noble the purpose or sensitive the perception, as in the case of the Lange photograph, there is a sense of intrusion, even of violation, as mirrored in the protective gesture of the man's hand.
The key question to ask oneself when looking at a photograph of a person is why, out of the endless possible poses, expressions, situations, and moods, the photographer chose that particular combination: Was it to reveal the person or his interpretation of the person as a symbol?
This is not to say that interpretive photography is ``wrong'' because it is literally or figuratively manipulative. The point is rather that it is crucial to distinguish between a portrait and a face, to know what one is looking at and judge it according to the photographer's intention. While making his statement, is he preserving the integrity of his subject as a human being or reducing his subject to the status of an object?
When one considers, for example, Marilyn Monroe, one of the most excessively photographed women in the world, it is painfully obvious how many photographers recorded not the person but the persona and manipulated the person to conform to their private vision of vulnerability, sexuality, stardom, etc. These are not portraits but photographs of masks and valid as such, but it is important to remember that they also distort the human being.
Invasion can be an issue in portrait photography as well. Robert Mapple-thorpe's portrait of the art collector Doris Saatchi is indisputably a portrait insofar as he is not using her particularity to make a more general statement. Yet it is so heavily mannered and stylized, the photographer's hand is so apparent in the lighting, wardrobe, pose, and mood, that we don't know if this ethereal, idealized presence (evocative of the Ghost of Christmas Past in Dick-ens's ``A Christmas Carol,'') is Mapple-thorpe's vision of Mrs. Saatchi as an icon, of her image of herself, or of the ``real'' Mrs. Saatchi.
The best photographs of people are those like Steichen's portrait of Stieglitz in which the photographer is in a very real sense effacing himself, submitting himself to his subject, serving as the medium and not the message.
Steichen's role is far from passive - the artistic hand is clearly present - but his attitude is more receptive than manipulative. It is that of one awaiting revelation, the moment of recognition, rather than forcing a preconceived notion on the subject. Ironically, such portraits that contain the deepest truth about the individual seem to achieve the greatest universality.
The exhibition will run through the summer.