Moving beyond photography’s unrivaled capacity for description, the photographers in “Self and Shadow” create matrices of psychological meaning, mirrors of experience and metaphors for contemplation. Every portrait is the record of a transaction, an exchange between the photographer and the sitter in which, as Max Kozloff writes, the sitter offers up an image of him or herself to the camera in the hope that the photographer will acknowledge and accept it.
Without reflecting, people seem to think they know what a portrait is, even if they’re not always able to define the term or distinguish a portrait conceptually from other pictures that have similar appearances.Familiar images of sitters, recollected from history, the media, and from the family crowd into mind: what else could they be but portraits? Before the camera of Walker Evans, Mrs. Gudger was perfectly assured she was posing for her portrait . . . and so are we.
One of the first patterns newborns are capable of distinguishing, psychologists tell us, is the simple constellation of features of the human face—the timeless geometry of eyes, nose, mouth. At an astonishingly early age, babies make subtle distinctions among faces, recognizing the caring mother, screaming with terror at the approach of others.
In The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster describes the experience of a man who, after his father’s death, faces the task of sorting through his belongings. In doing so he tries to discover just who his father, a figure shrouded in his own isolation, had been.
Peter Hujar was best known for his austere portraits of figures in the world (and netherworld) of downtown and mondain New York, as well as for his isolated, oddly lonely nudes. Though not as well-recognized as he might have been during his lifetime, his work forms part of major collections in both the United States and Europe.
Faced by the blank stare of the camera we twist and turn, primp and pose, trying to match our outward appearance to the image we have of ourselves. But between the mind’s image and physical reality lies a profound uncertainty, which in turn is translated and fixed, made authoritative, by the camera.
In 1986 I began as a volunteer working with and photographing men, women, and children with AIDS. It is through photographing only those with whom I am most intimately involved that I hope to make a more spiritual documentation of this disease.
Crossing boundaries of class and geography, time and culture, photographs bring us images of people we don’t know, may never meet, and grant us at least the illusion of acquaintance. Sometimes they can provide even more intimate knowledge—more knowledge, perhaps, than the person might wish to allow.
I met Ricky in the early 1980s. I met a lot of boys then, each more self-centered than the next. They were a band of scroungers, demanding of society that they be given everything they needed—and they needed a lot. The advertising industry demanded that they live in a certain way, use certain products, dress in a certain way—in fact, plan their lives so that they would have to buy products just to keep pace.
Is there a truly open face, a face that has nothing to hide? There are many faces that have extreme closure—to the extent of deliberately closing themselves off, hiding behind veils or masks, self-consciously living in shadow—but none are completely open, can be read effortlessly.
Alone on the stage of the photograph we act out dreams and nightmares, donning this or that persona, offering ourselves up to the lens’s impassive eye. In doing so we strive to make the apparatus complicit in our desires. The self depicted is neither true nor false but possible, potential; the image provides a meeting ground for the mirroring deceptions of the medium and the pose.
IN GRIEF AND ANGER: PHOTOGRAPHING PEOPLE WITH AIDS
How do you photograph AIDS? How do you depict a syndrome with no distinct visual signs? How do you photograph a condition that prompts social stigmatization as frequently as it elicits sympathy? To quote every stand-up comic since Henny Youngman, “Very carefully.”
For all the shocks once caused by the seventeen years’ worth of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs included in his recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, the work looks remarkably traditional. The dark stripes crossing the platinum print Eggplant (1985) suggest the noir-ish window-blind shadows favored by such film directors as Robert Siodmak (Cry of the City), while the vegetable’s sinewy perfection recalls Edward Weston’s peppers.
The Opéra plaza was jammed with screaming sirens and Jean-Paul Gaultier-dressed women clutching at their skirts as they steeplechased puddles. Inside the high-ceilinged rotunda the sounds of honking horns gave way to the rustle of wet clothes, the popping of champagne corks, and the imposing exhibition itself, hung operatically on the curved walls.
ROBERT ATKINS writes regularly about art for the Village Voice and 7 Days. He is currently working on a book about contemporary art for Abbeville Press. PAUL AUSTER is a poet, critic, translator, and novelist, and is the editor of The Random House Book of TwentiethCentury French Poetry.
NOTE: In the following credits, dimensions are given for prints 20 X 24" or larger, with the height listed first. In addition, special or unusual processes involved in making the work are also listed. Front cover: photograph by Michael Spano, 27 X 36", copyright 1988 by Michael Spano, courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery, New York; p. 2 photograph by John Coplans, 31 x 25", copyright 1987 by John Coplans;