Who Are You? That’s You!
What do portraits (not) reveal about their subjects?
The photographic portrait is a three-way relationship: it is the result of a process of negotiation between the photographer, the photographed person, and the viewer. Even if it appears at times that one of the three has control over the image, they all invariably remain producers and recipients of the portrait.1 In line with these conjectures, put forward by Ariella Azoulay, photographic portraits are subject to variations in meaning and are open to satisfy different demands and desires. Thus, whether we want it or not, we as viewers make a significant contribution to what a photographic portrait tells us. With portraits, our interpretation is particularly delicate because we are looking at individuals, making judgements about them, and following objective and subjective patterns—as a means to decipher their character, determine their identity, and relate to them.
Measuring and mismeasuring
The starting point for this section are portraits of psychiatric patients from the early twentieth century. They originate from the archive of the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, whose collection focuses on artworks created by the inmates of psychiatric institutions from the period between 1840 and 1945. These portraits are “Fotografien-wider-Willen” (photographs taken against someone’s will)2—pictures taken of the patients when they entered the institution and then put in their files. In psychiatry in the late nineteenth century, just as in criminology, anthropology, and ethology, it was believed that, with the help of seemingly objective photographic depictions, it was possible not only to make people identifiable via the photographic scanning of their physiognomies but also to classify them—and in this way illnesses, criminal profiles, and even racial identities were assigned to them. The visual language used in the scientific disciplines is similar: people are crammed into a picture box, showing a view mostly taken from the front as well as from the side, and made as amenable as possible to measurement and comparison. Counter-images expressing mistrust for photographic objectivity can be found in the Prinzhorn Collection in the form of drawings on top of photographic images, sketched reinterpretations, and autonomously created self-depictions.
From a certain point on, this classification seems to become grotesque. In Peggy Buth’s portraits, the photographed people refuse to show their faces, using their hand as a shield. However, this does not prevent the artist from putting a measuring grid over them. Fine lines engraved in the framing glass measure the length and proportions of the fingers. A text is appended that promises a correlation between social behaviours, sexual preferences, health problems, and the length of a person’s fingers—this is to be achieved by comparing finger lengths, which can be carried out particularly effectively with a photocopy of the hand. The basis of the test is a study performed by American scientists around 2000, which the artist makes available for us to take home from the exhibition in a slightly modified form. We involuntarily begin—mentally at least—to compare the length of our own fingers with those of other people. In this way we blunder into the same trap as the scientists of the nineteenth century: the assumption that the inner life can be analysed with a medium that is limited to representing surfaces.
Jürgen Klauke’s work Das menschliche Antlitz im Spiegel soziologisch nervöser Prozesse (The Human Face as Reflected in Sociologically-Nervous Processes) (1976/77) shows how easily we can be seduced by ascriptions and categorizations. The faces of twelve people can be seen in twelve photographs—ranging from the judge to the half-wit, and including artists, murderers, cops, gays, and saints. The characteristics of these groups of people become apparent from their physiognomies in the photographs. But we are mistaken. Klauke only shows us two different facial expressions. It is pure fantasy that the images of diverse human types will reveal something different in each case.
Playing with stereotypes
We can get help in reading and understanding portraits from indicators that we look for in facial expressions and gestures, clothing, location, and visual context—and quite often in stereotypical patterns of representation too. In his film Om (1986) John Smith uses the confrontation of two diametrically opposed ideologies to present an individual reaction to visual, acoustic, and ideological clichés. In the space of four minutes a young man transforms from a Buddhist monk into an English hooligan. In the course of the film the protagonist’s already short hair is shaved even shorter and a white polo shirt and black braces emerge from under his orange robe. In the meantime his facial expression changes—at first insidiously, then abruptly when the robe is removed by another person. At this moment, if not before, our interpretation of the gestures and identity we have been observing changes radically.
In her self-enactments Zanele Muholi focuses on the influence that our cultural background has on the way we perceive portraits. Drawing on the discriminatory practice of blackfacing3 and accessories that seem exotic, precarious, or fetishistic, she reflects on the image of the black woman as a construct composed of ethical and gender-based ideas. She paints her dark skin black, transforms industrial scrap into sumptuous jewellery, appears with an abundant head of magnificently flowing hair, and with her expression presents herself in one picture as a savage, in another as an indigent or even as a trophy. They are representational patterns of a white, male gaze, which she imposes on herself in a state of quiet melancholy to demonstrate their absurdity.
Analysis and comparison
Photography’s potential for analysis is utilized by scientists and artists. Up until the 1970s photographs were used in psychological research to present mental illnesses and deviations from the “norm” and thus create a counter-image to the bourgeois lifeworld. There are numerous textbooks with photographs that are meant to make it easier to come up with a diagnosis based on a comparison of the physical features depicted there. Yet the majority of cases involve the visual interpretations of the doctor taking the photographs.4
In the period between 1972 and 1977 Marianne Wex applied a similarly analytical eye to photographing the physical postures of people on the streets of Hamburg and supplemented this collection of pictures with photographs from newspapers and magazines. Unlike with the scientific approaches used in psychiatric research, she collected her own pictures and found images of a huge array of people she encountered in the city’s public spaces. She then sorted the pictures into different categories in order to highlight typical female and male body language by making a visual comparison of the positions of arms, legs, feet, knees, elbows, hands, shoulders, and heads.
The shift in meaning that a photographic portrait can be subject to is spelt out by Helmar Lerski and Andrzej Steinbach. Helmar Lerski focuses on the face of a young man he photographed in 1936 on the roof of a house in Tel Aviv. With the help of the glistening sunlight and up to sixteen mirrors and screens, he created 175 possible identities for one person. It is a practical demonstration of how the light, as the fundamental condition for photography, can be used to uproot the belief in the medium as an objective tool and simultaneously makes reference to the fact that a single person contains an infinite number of identities. In the course of the photo session the two young women in Andrzej Steinbach’s picture sequences from 2014/15 change their expressions, gestures, posture, and clothing. The artist, and thus we too as viewers, move simultaneously around the figures, which are photographed from a variety of distances and perspectives—186 times in black and white in an unornamented room. As simple as the setting seems, it is both alienating and confusing because in spite of their clarity, the identities and desires of the two women remain uncertain. The juxtaposition of several images increases this openness and enhances the interpretation of social and political affiliation. In some sequences there are also highly charged contradictions, when a boring white T-shirt, which Figure II pulls over its head, becomes first a viewing window, then a burka, and then a balaclava—an ordinary item of clothing is thus transformed into a sociopolitically charged accessory.
As a classical field of application for photography and the one that we come across most frequently in everyday life, the portrait will always be somewhat enigmatic. It reveals a great deal about us, perhaps even more than about the person portrayed: when the image of this person triggers empathy, indifference, or rejection, portraits become “mirror images or counter-images of ourselves”5.
1 ↩ See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 2nd ed. (New York, 2014), 27–28.
2 ↩ See Susanne Regener, Visuelle Gewalt (Bielefeld, 2010).
3 ↩ Blackfacing is a theatre practice that was popular in the USA in playing Afro-American roles. White actors painted their faces black for the stereotypical performances of the so-called Minstrel Shows. After the American Civil War, African Americans took over the roles and ironized the discriminatory practice by using coal to make their faces even blacker.
4 ↩ See Helen Bömmelburg: Der Arzt und sein Modell, Porträtfotografien aus der deutschen Psychiatrie 1880 bis 1933 (Wiesbaden 2010), Susanne Regener: loc. cit. and Bernhard Stumpfhaus: Das schöne Bild vom Wahn, Weinsberger Patientenfotografien aus dem frühen 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart, 2008).
5 ↩ Susanne Regener, Fotografische Erfassung: Zur Geschichte medialer Konstruktionen des Kriminellen (Munich, 1999), 7.