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The Universal Nature of the Vernacular Photographic Portrait By Caroline De Vries

Submitted to the Humanities Department in Candidacy for MA in Fine Art/Photography, 2007

Table of Contents





List of Illustrations




Chapter One: The Condemned Portrait


Chapter Two: The Last Image: From the Private to the Public Sphere


Chapter Three: Out of Context: The Judgment of the Face







Acknowledgements I would like to thank Ben, my partner for endless support and for proofreading this essay. I am indebted to Paul Kilsby for his inspiration, enthusiasm and guidance throughout the project. Thanks to my parents Gilbert and Chantal for their support.


List of Illustrations


Anonymous, Untitled (Portrait of an ‘Alte Postfuhramt’ Employee, Berlin), Photograph, Date Unknown Source: Caroline De Vries


Francis Galton, Composites of Criminals, Composites Photographs, 1882 Source: In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science and the Everyday Oxford: The Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1997


D.K.V Album, Photographs, Date Unknown Source: Frizot, Michel Identités, de Disdéri au Photomaton, Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1985 Courtesy Préfecture de Police, Direction de la Police Judiciaire


Anonymous, Untitled (Auschwitz Identification Portraits), Photographs, Date Unknown Source: Frizot, Michel Identités, de Disdéri au Photomaton, Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1985 Courtesy Ministère de la Défense, Secrétariat d’Etat chargé des Anciens combattants et victims de guerre


Caroline De Vries, Untitled (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), Documentation Photograph, 2007


Christian Boltanski, Menschlich, Installation, Framed Photographs, Galerie Jules Kewenig, Cologne, 1996 Source: Christian Boltanski, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1997


Anonymous, Kevin Hicks, Photograph, Date Unknown Source: Useful Photography #003, Artimo, 2003


NMPH (National Missing Persons Helpline), Kevin Hicks, Aged ‘Photo Sketch’, Date Unknown Source: Useful Photography #003, Artimo, 2003


Joachim Schmid, No. 629, Berlin, Photograph, 1999 Source: Joachim Schmid: Photoworks 1982-2007, Brighton, London: Photoworks/Tang/Steidl, 2007


Hashem El Madani, Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Photograph, 1957 Source: Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices , Beirut, London: Arab Image Foundation, Mind the gap, The Photographer’s Gallery, 2004


Christian Boltanski, Portraits of the Students of the Lentillères College of Secondary Education, Dijon (detail), Framed Photographs, 1972 Source: Christian Boltanski, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1997


Caroline de Vries, Untitled (War memorial, Ponte Tresa, Italy), Photograph, 1997


Christian Boltanski, Untitled (Excerpt from Kaddish), Photograph, 1998 Source: Boltanski, Christian, Kaddish, Germany: Kehayoff Verlag, 1998



Christian Boltanski, Untitled (Excerpt from Kaddish), Photograph, 1998 Source: Boltanski, Christian, Kaddish, Germany: Kehayoff Verlag, 1998


Willie Doherty, Same Difference (Detail), Slide Installation with Text, 1990 Source: Godfrey,Tony, Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1998


Marcus Harvey, Myra, Painting, 1995 Source:


Anonymous, Myra Hindley Mug Shot, Photograph, 1966 Source:


Isa Genzken, Untitled (Excerpt from Der Spiegel 1989-1991), Photograph, 2003 Source: Great 62, The Photographer’s Gallery, 2005. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Collection, Switzerland


Caroline De Vries, Template, Photograph, 2007


Caroline De Vries, Template#1, Elsdale St, Photograph, 2007


Caroline De Vries, Template#2, Bethnal Green Rd, Photograph, 2007


Nancy Burson, Second Beauty Composite (Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields and Meryl Streep), Composite Photograph, 1982 Source:


Anonymous, Untitled, Photograph, Date Unknown


Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations. […] he wanted it to be possible to recognize in his photograph the half-crumpled and torn images and at the same time to feel their unreality as casual inky shadows, and also at the same time to feel their concreteness as objects charged with meaning, the strength with which they clung to the attention that tried to drive them away. Italo Calvino, The Adventure of a Photographer, 1955




A photograph is intrinsically non-generic; unlike the more subjective illustration of a painting or drawing of ‘a’ woman, a photograph will reproduce the exact image of ‘this’ woman, a specific and unique subject, at a certain time. There are many cases where the photograph shifts from the individual to the universal and therefore contradicts its original nature, especially in ‘vernacular portraits’ such as family pictures and ‘official’ portraits (state or legally commissioned work). The codes and meanings of these images can be interpreted as free from signs of authorship as they have not been produced in the first instance as an artistic statement.

When a photograph is disengaged from time, space or identity, the viewer feels compelled to reconstruct the broken links between subject and context. A photographic portrait shot on a featureless background, like the flat gold background of Byzantine icons, gives us only an image of a face, disconnected from the scene that existed a second before and after the release of the shutter, and is vulnerable to abstraction. In this way the image of a specific woman becomes an image of an example of a woman, with the potential to migrate into the form of an icon. To this icon, we unconsciously add our social or aesthetic judgements: the icon risks transformation into stereotype, archetype or idol.

Our imagination and fantasies are tantalised by the vernacular portrait, removing us from the purity or truth of the original. By adding our personal interpretations, for example: ‘her gaze reminds me of my mother, her freckles are as numerous as mine’, we are not only reconstructing a character, but are depicting or expressing our own portrait. We can also picture someone in the sense of forming a mental image, and in the process the uncertain recollections of memory risk the disintegration of details into the generic.

Identification portraits can dispossess a photographic portrait of its individuality, an intentional imposition of control over the person via the image’s use and cataloguing, which has the effect of normalising or systematising the subject. Simultaneously, the requirement for each person


to submit their image for identification confirms their uniqueness, and the importance of their visual identity. The image of a face, when merged into a crowd of the same typology ceases to be specifically about one being and presents a collective identification which often shares a common mortality and memory.

The shift of meaning in photographic relics expands when it enters the public sphere. A single, personal or sentimental image, can be abstracted into an icon when its meaning is altered by its definition as the ‘final’ image of a person. This shift is incremented by mass distribution or reproduction and absorption into the public consciousness. Images are exposed for deconstruction; stories must be told and opinions made.

There is no innocent way to look at a portrait. We are both passive and active in reading it. How can a face be categorised; demonised or idealised through strategies of alteration, decontextualisation and seriality? Through image, does the individual have the potential to transcend into immortality and be sublimated? How does the vernacular photographic portrait oscillate between the individual and the universal or absence and presence and what is the significance of these transformations?


Chapter One The Condemned Portrait


At the end of the 19th century, it was a common belief that photography was the most objective device of representation available, and the most accurate reproduction of likeness. It was natural that the most common purpose of photography was to photograph the self, and social portraiture was popularly used to situate a person in a class or society. Subsequently photography became a medium of evidence and proof, serving practical, useful purposes. For the State and Science, photography was established as a tool of surveillance and identification of the ‘degenerates’ (criminals, mental patients, etc.), in addition to a tool of classification of ‘subject races’. The portraits produced were not any longer about vanity, but regarded as objects of study or documentation to explore deviance or racial demographics. The subject of these images was not necessarily aware of their purpose or use. The possession of this image empowered the documenter, state or scientist by the value of information or control over those photographed. The freedom of the subject was, in any case, compromised.

One of the proponents of such practices, was Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin. He developed the physiognomical identification system (profile and frontal shots) created in 1890 by Bertillon1 to create composite portraits. Peter Hamilton in The Beautiful and the Damned describes the apparatus: Composite photographs […] using photography to record the statistical ‘normality’ of physiognomic features. He invented a special camera which could recover overall ‘ideal-typical’ features from a large group of individuals, standardised portraits all made on the same photographic plate.


and cites Galton’s explanation of the intentions underpinning his manual Composite Portraits, about a set of portraits of criminals convicted of murder: It will be observed that the features of the composites are much better looking than those of the components. The special villainous irregularities in the latter have disappeared, and the common humanity that underlies them has prevailed. They represent, not the criminal but the man who is liable to fall into crime. 3


Figure 1.1: Francis Galton, Composites of Criminals, Composite Photographs, 1882

Galton created archetypes of all the persons he believed suspicious and therefore in need of surveillance (an insane person, a Jew etc.). In this mapping of faces, Galton paradoxically created an ‘ideal’ and ‘perfect’ image of the criminal, one of the groups in society he aimed to help remove. If Galton believed that physical attributes could indicate mental attributes, then the composite portrait of a criminal should not nullify but accentuate all his “villainous” features.

With the advantage of hindsight, it is disturbing to imagine that such naïve processes and strategies were considered and authorised. Galton’s composite image of the ultimate archetype of the criminal became almost immediately an irrelevance, a “fiction” to employ Sekula’s word 4, for the criminology department, who did not trust such non-specific images. This signified the failure and limits of a generic portrayal and the impossibility of the ‘type’.

Galton's composite photographs and the more contemporary photofit picture, also made from composite photographs of facial features, can be compared and contrasted in many ways. They share the re-construction, the re-creation of the face and the identity of the absent.


Figure 1.2: Anonymous, D.K.V Album, Photographs, Date Unknown

The origins of the photofit pictures are DKV albums (Figure 1.2), in use at the beginning of the 20th century in France. In these images the face was sliced into three parts; forehead, eyes and nose and mouth and chin. The criminal department had at its disposal a multitude of photographs of characteristic facial features (types of noses, mouths, eyes, etc.) that when assembled could create the likeness of a wanted criminal. This procedure was called the ‘portrait parlé’ (speaking portrait) and the result was a fascinating facial composite, constructed from three different source-faces. Unlike Galton’s images, the features were not superposed but juxtaposed. It is surprising how these images created by this strategy, despite their resemblance to a child’s game, are disturbing. One has no idea of who the models are, as the identity of each component is overwritten and nullified by their combination in the final image. These portraits show the limits of representation using archetypal elements. Features become racial or social stereotypes, faces become features. Nonetheless, the composite resembles a mutant-face and cannot be considered as pure


documentation. Fragmented identities when mixed together will never completely resemble true individuality.

Figure 1.3: Anonymous, Untitled (Auschwitz Identification Portraits), Photographs, Date Unknown

It is in the context of internment camps that a study can be made of the “policing [of] the face” 5 via the identification portraits of Auschwitz victims (Figure 1.3) who were systematically photographed on their arrival at the camp.

The portraits have a unifying style and are similar to the identifying cards of Bertillon, though they lack the anthropometric measures; they are composed of a black and white triptych with profile, frontal and side poses. These images in form and message are a complete negation of the person as an individual even though they are identification portraits. The subject becomes a categorised object. In the profile pose, one can notice the metal rod from the pose chair, deep-set in the back of the skull, which assures the fixed position of the head. The pose annihilates all individual expression and conforms and coerces the person to a racial ‘type’. The gaze is forced, the body is abused, the image is stolen. This abuse of power reverberates violently through the apparatus. In The Burden of Representation, John Tagg describes an early 20th century police identification system in England which speaks of similar objectification:


What we have in this standardised image is more than a picture of a supposed criminal. It is a portrait of the product of the disciplinary method: the body made object; divided and studied; enclosed in a cellular structure of space whose architecture is the file-index; made docile and forced to yield up its truth; separated and individuated; subjected and made subject.6

The photographic portrait is here a memento mori, literally ‘remember (that you have) to die.’ 7 These are portraits of the condemned, unaware of their final fate but well aware of being the victims of a terrible machination. Victims face their executioners with a surprising straight-forward and piercing gaze, which reminds me of the portrait of Lewis Payne (1865) awaiting his execution. Barthes comments on this in Camera Lucida, writing of the paradoxical nature of a condemned portrait, which at the second it is taken is already an image frozen in death: I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in future. 8

Repetition or the multitude acts as a trigger on the conscience or awareness. One sees one portrait reproduced in a book compared with hundreds, side by side at the scene of a crime, the impact and significance are vastly different. In general, one portrait among hundreds of the same typology ceases to be about one individual and merges into the crowd, signifying something that goes beyond its singularity; the photographic portrait can in this way access the status of archetype or symbol and be part of ‘the bigger picture’ as Allan Sekula suggests in On the Invention of Photographic Meaning: The photograph stands for the object or event that is curtailed at its spatial or temporal boundaries, or it stands for a contextually related object or event. An image of a man’s face, stands for a man, and perhaps, in turn, for a class of men. 9

For example, in August Sander’s “universal picture of society” 10 People of the 20th century, each portrait doesn’t depict the individuality of a person, rather it seeks to denote the class or community to which they belong. The captions are clear; Beggar, Composer, Farmer…


The signifiers can be likened to a picture book, without definite articles. The portrayed subject becomes an iconic sign, an archetype that is required to stand for a global and social condition.

Figure 1.4: Caroline de Vries, Untitled (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), Documentation Photograph, 2007

I am, in truth, reluctant to approach Sander’s monumental typology or the camp portraits only on a generic scale. Each person, categorised, is profoundly and insistently human and unique and looks back at me with the assurance of authenticity and self-awareness. A more profound reading of the camp portraits is possible in the barracks of the Auschwitz museum. Rows of hundreds of portraits are hung on the wall for the entire length of corridors. (Figure 1.4) A multitude of faces stare at the viewer with an unforgettable depth. It is impossible to walk along the corridors and turn your back to the wall.

In fact, the camp portraits retrieve their individuality in the way that they are presented today and made visible to the visitor. The fact that every photograph is labelled with the exact name is critical, reminding us that behind each portrait, someone has fallen, someone died. Putting a face on the dead is primordial for the process of mourning. It also stops us from diluting the memory of the deceased or the acceptance and realisation of the trauma, the creation of a distant and generic shadow. It is interesting to consider through the study of photographic vernacular portraits that the collapse of individuality of the subject at the same time as the image would appear to confirm


or celebrate uniqueness.

In the Burden of Representation, John Tagg analyses the identification devices that for him annihilate any possible humanity and future heritage: The chronicle of a man, the account of his life, his historiography, written as he lived out his life formed part of the rituals of his power. The disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality and made of this description a means of control and a method of domination. It is no longer a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use.11

In the case of the camp portraits and the way they are displayed today, I believe they became memorials, collective memory images. At the same time, each of them has a personal history; all are chained, part of the same community, sharing a common flesh, history and memory. From photographs tarnished with our common shame and responsibility, documents we wish had never been conceived, they become precious archives for realizing the extent of the trauma so that never again such images should be created.

With regard to portraits becoming memorials, I wish to explore Menschlich (Humanity) (Figure1.5), a major work of the French artist Christian Boltanski. It consists of an installation of 1300 framed black and white photographs of people from various sources (found photographs from flea markets, almanacs, photo-albums, obituaries, detective and illustration magazines‌) and the publications Menschlich and Kaddish. Menschlich may be considered a summary of all Boltanski’s work in its form and intentions; a gigantic photographic catalogue of human faces, a universal representation of society in all its diversity and extremes, representative of humanity itself. This is a universal collective memorial, not a memorial created to remind us of specific people but to remind us of our common mortality, our shared fate of being subject to death. It is a photographic memento mori that aims to reveal parts of our vulnerability and fragility, our mischievous and virtuous contradictions by offering clues to some aspects of our common human nature; aging, death, innocence, guilt, love, etc‌


Figure 1.5: Christian Boltanski, Menschlich, Installation, Galerie Jules Kewenig, Cologne, Framed photographs, 1996

Although Menschlich deals with collective memory and the fate we all share, Boltanski insists on saving what he calls “small memory” 12, our ephemeral idiosyncrasies. It is what reintroduces a kind of intimacy to his work and reveals this ‘contrast between the fact that each person is unique and that each person is so quickly forgotten’. 13

Menschlich assumes both a memorial and funereal character: the interrelation of photography and death run simultaneously and continuously throughout Boltanski’s work. Firstly, with the presentation; the installation is similar to the camps portraits actual presentation (Figure 1.4) and ex-votos, and therefore requires implicitly a sense of mourning. Although Boltanski says ‘ […] my work is really not about the Holocaust, it’s about death in general, about all of our deaths’ 14, it very difficult not to feel the impact of it on some aspects of the work. Death is revealed in Boltanski’s secularshrines and memorials presentation and content but also in the act itself of photography; capturing a face and freezing it forever. He uses this device intentionally in his work, this duality wholly entrenched in the ontology of his medium:


What is certain is that photography is related to death and the past because the moment you take a photograph of something, three minutes after is something that no longer exists. Which also means every time you try to preserve something you kill it. It is the same as putting something behind glass in a museum. It’s the image of the object but it’s not the object itself. So in fact, photography saves and kills at the same time. Saves and in the end evokes the idea of something that no longer exists. 15

Barthes in this matter writes: For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life […] Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. 16

This funereal aspect of Boltanski’s work emphasizes our universal mortality. A portrait is simultaneously a testimony of existence and a testament of future death. His Menschlich is our common flesh, ‘our “collective consciousness” forged through the strength of the will of the crowd when gathered.’ 17


End Notes 1

Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914), French criminologist. He devised a system of body measurements (the eponymous Bertillon system) for the identification of criminals, which was widely used until superseded by the technique of finger printing at the beginning of the 20th century. The New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2005. 2

Hamilton, Peter, The Beautiful and the Damned, Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001, p 70


Galton, ‘Composite Portraits’, 1879, p 135 quoted in Hamilton, Peter, The Beautiful and the Damned, Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001, p 97


Sekula, Allan, The Body and the Archive, October, Vol. 39, 1986, p 22


Title’s name of the third chapter in Hamilton, Peter, The Beautiful and the Damned, Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001, p 57


Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1988, p 76


"memento mori" A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Oxford University Press, 2006. 8

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Classics, 2000, p 96


Sekula, Allan, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ in Thinking Photography,

New York: Palgrave Mc Millan, 1982, p 84 10 Lange, Susanne, ‘August Sander’s People of the 20th Century. Its Making and Impact’ in Cruel and Tender, The Real in the 20th Century Photography, London: Tate Publishing, 2003, p 29


Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1988, p 90

12 ‘Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski’ in Christian Boltanski, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1997, p 19


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, Mourning or Melancholia: Christian Boltanski’s Missing House, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1998, p 3


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Classics, 2000, p 92


Hoskins, Andrew, An Introduction to Media and Collective Memory


Chapter Two The Last Image: From the Private to the Public Sphere


How convinced can we be of the truth of a photograph when, if ever there were one, the age of photographic innocence is surely over? Can we accept constructions, visual deceits and stereotypical stimuli? We are now aware that every image that we see may have been manipulated and altered in PhotoShop. At the same time, we consume more and more images, both actively and passively. We are therefore more exposed to manipulation and are confronting issues of self, personhood and veracity in images, pushing us to be responsible and critical towards them.

The NMPH (National Missing Persons Helpline) creates computer generated faces using artificially aged photographs. The last image of a missing child can be scanned and aged digitally by slightly stretching the existing features to anticipate how a child may look five or ten years after their disappearance (Figure 2.2). The original (now penultimate) image, which is often a family or school portrait (Figure 2.1), is frequently displayed adjacent to the artificially aged photograph. Bizarrely, many missing persons will never resemble their aged portrait as they will never reach the projected age. This is certainly not a real face, it is an impossible representation and seems out of place with time itself, an anachronism or historical fake.

In a desperate search to find a missing person, ‘projected aged images’ paradoxically keep one’s distance from the absent: the features are somewhat blurred, the distinguishing marks erased. What is revealed is a spectral image without true identity, which has partially left the real or living world, entering immortality. It is a rare example of a generic image becoming an icon and in a fantastic parallel slippage, a deceased child, a saint. As an icon, the artificially aged photograph requires ubiquitous reproduction so that eventually it loses uniqueness and temporal specificity.

These collapsed diptychs of mortality/immortality act as a metamorphosis from innocence to death symbol. Geoffrey Batchen in his essay ‘fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography is’ writes about this ambiguous nature of relic images:


The photographed subject is still a ghost of his former self, but here that ghost haunts with the comforting presence of an eternal life rather than with the morbid reminder of a perpetual death. 1

Figure 2.1 (left): Anonymous, Kevin Hicks, Photograph, Date Unknown Figure 2.2 (right): NMPH (National Missing Persons Helpline), Kevin Hicks, Aged ‘Photo Sketch’, Date Unknown

Relic images have an ambiguous property of being both a reminder of life and death. The family picture is like a reference point to a story that has existed and can be relived. In the case of the photofit, it is a reference to a story that has never happened; it is a projection. Contrary to Batchen, I do not find a “comforting presence” in these types of images, rather an unsettling absence.

These photographs become tragically famous because they leave the comfort of the private house and personal memory to enter the public sphere of the street and the media. In order to find the absent, in some way, this strategy seeks to achieve recognition or a kind of fame. Shown in series,


these portraits risk becoming commonplace and anonymous and symbols of a double loss; to the physical disappearance add the loss of identity and attention. In the U.S for example, photographs of missing children are printed on milk packaging; one is so habituated to seeing them that one finally ignores them. To cite the case of ‘Maddy’ 2 as a recent example: her snapshot portrait has been extensively reproduced on front pages, billboards, in shop windows, in cars and lorries, in airports and football grounds. To a certain extent, ‘Maddy’ has become a ‘celebrity’. But scale doesn’t bring more attention: paradoxically, by being too visible, those visual stimuli vanish. The image transmutes ineluctably from a child, to a missing child, to a forgotten child and so on until the inevitable conclusion. It would, in fact, come as a shock for the image to be re-animated or restored to its original function or meaning.

In a family portrait, it is the psychological and social history of the subject that we try to unravel. We are imagining their position in the world and society, their affiliations or creating connections if the image is part of a series. We find ourselves led by familiar visual keys, to make assumptions via images. A ‘standard’ photograph of a family elicits an assumption of stability, of a homely togetherness. It’s unnatural, or neurotic to choose small details in a picture to indicate dysfunction. It’s abnormal to invent sinister stories from images, in the absence of proof, in the same way that we assume stories of contentment of happiness. The last image usually shows a family snapshot of a smiling person. Decontextualised and captionless theses images can never penetrate the hidden reality.

The appearance of a photograph of a face is never what it seems to be, and there is no ‘innocent’ way to look at it. The family portrait is not more above suspicion than others, it too can hide secrets and demons. Marianne Hirsch in Family Frames, Photography Narrative and Post Memory talks about the incompleteness of the image: The viewer fills in what the pictures leaves out; the horror of looking is not necessarily in the image but in the story the viewer provides to fill in what has been omitted. For each image we provide the other complementary one.3


Figure 2.3 (left): Joachim Schmid, No 629, Berlin, Found Photograph, 1999 Figure 2.4 (right): Hashem El Madani, Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Photograph, 1957

Speaking about the narratives embedded in the family photograph and its advance into the public sphere, one can consider Bilder von der Strasse (Pictures from the Street), Joachim Schmid’s fascinating ongoing body of work since 1982.

This piece has no fixed form and has regrouped all the discarded photos that Schmid has found in the street. There is no editing in the piece; every found photograph has been collected, left untitled, given a serial number, location and date and affixed to a panel. The work comprises many snapshots of people and faces; photobooth strips, ID photos, Polaroids, Kodachromes‌ shredded in pieces, cut out, trampled, yellow and faded with time, scrawled upon, lost or discarded. Each photograph once isolated and exhibited on a panel suddenly has an imposing, palpable,


obvious presence. The physicality of each image is highlighted by their alterations. Schmid has carefully recomposed the photographs that were defaced and shredded into pieces (Figure 2.3). In each reconstitution of disfigured images, some pieces are missing but the theme or face is still recognisable. Sometimes we are left with only one tiny piece of the photograph. In the case of these images, it is from the omission, or the loss of the whole, that our imagination is triggered. We feel compelled to recompose the fragmented scene and start creating narratives. In a conversation with Stephen Bull, Schmid argues that the narratives are not intentionally enhanced by the artist: Narratives depend on individual imagination. I don’t propose a closed narrative that it is mine. Everybody, with his own background and culture can create his own narratives. This is more interesting. 4

These images were never intended to be seen outside of the private sphere. Conversely, in almost every case, the image and through it the subject has been discarded precisely in order to be erased, buried, forgotten. There is something simultaneously painful and beautiful in the way that Schmid has decided to rescue these images from their destruction and publicly display them. John S Weber compares them metaphorically to ‘a genuine Salon des Refusés, an anti-museum of throwaways, an archaeological sweep through the streets of modern life.’ 5

It is troubling to see the photographic portrait lose its primary function of social representation and pride of the self, to become a surface of hate, suffering or betrayal when shredded in pieces by its author, or furiously defaced and censured by a jealous husband. (Figure 2.4) Indeed the wounding of the image seems an eloquent externalisation of a perceived, imagined trauma. It is disturbing to see a face in a photograph being damaged because the person is embodied in the physicality of the image. Desecrating the person-image is a profound statement, as the usual intention of the portrait is to preserve and respect a long-lasting, sacred facsimile of a person. We can’t help but associate in a way the destruction of the person with the destruction of the image.


What these images also reveal is our compulsion to record our life through pictures. Schmid once said ‘People take photographs to remind them that they are alive. It’s wrong’. 6 He is against the mass production of photography that reproduces endless ‘clichés’, and at the same time recycles this production as raw material for his art.

Photography is both a fertile and destructive medium. Its quality of infinite reproducibility acts both as a distributor of beauty and knowledge as well as an impoverishment of the medium; the abundance of images and ‘systematic’ genres of subject matter (family, weddings, birthday parties…) leads to stereotypical consumption. All those images taken from the family album become interchangeable. By repeating each other, they erase themselves at the same time. This consumption is revealing of society; people tend to be similar and so pictures are too. The individual disappears, leaving the macro-event. There is a possibility to retrieve some identity only if you isolate the person from its original context (the album).

What remains of the family and social life without the photographic record? Are photographs essential for remembrance, are they the most powerful images we possess? They are proof of our existence, our evolution and choices. Are photographs precious because they are impermanent?  Why do we keep certain photographs and decide to discard others? In this editing process, we build up through the years our intimate memory, and construct our ideal family of beloved people and places. It is the family of the scraps, the forgotten, the rejected that Schmid highlights and regroups in Bilder von der Strasse. Like Boltanski’s Menschlich, as part of an unlimited series, each photograph is more that its own image, and brings to the fore its own individuality and universality. Each person is unique and multiple at the same time. One can’t escape from this double condition and the vernacular photographic portrait is the gathering place of this dichotomy.

Stephen Wright in his essay Falling into his Eyes which analyses Hashem El Madani’s studio portraits, suggests the social transformation of a photograph as part of a series:


This in-depth look at individual –though, to almost anyone but the photographer himself, anonymous – faces is utterly transformed by the pure number of them, so that one sees is an entire society –or at least a broad cross sections of it– in the throws of performing its identity, and thereby producing what is common to all. One sees, for lack of a better term, a kind of social flesh – a flesh that is not a body, but a flesh that is common, living substance.7

This “living substance” is also perishable, and family portraits are reminders of our own mortality. Missing children and obituary photographs are memorials carrying a dual implication of life and death and remind me of the withered bouquets you see placed in the city at the scenes of road accidents, tributes to innocent victims. In this regard, Marita Sturken in The Image as Memorial writes: These photographs are offered up as testimony, hopeful evidence to the humanity once embodied by their subjects, proclamation of prior innocence, and often desperate cries for those who are absent, missing, or dead. 8

When related to missing childrens’ photographs, the following statement by Boltanski about the “last image”, a concept he was fascinated with, is also revealing: Someone said you die twice, you die when you die and you die a second time when someone picks up your photo and knows who you are. And it’s very strange how we recognise a face in a photograph rather than a real face, I mean that when someone dies we remember the photograph but not the person. I’ve always been interested in what would be the last image that remains. The photographic image replaces the face and at the same time everyone is irreplaceable and at the same time everyone is replaced. 9

The impact and trace of a photograph can be so powerful that it can replace and in effect annihilate its subject. Photography can perform as a weapon, a prediction of death; if your last image is taken, it proves in a way that you will die. And at the same time, a portrait is a proof of our existence, a demonstration of life.

Another example of Boltanski’s exploration of this dual nature of the photographic medium is the installation: Portraits of the Students of the Lentillères College of Secondary Education, Dijon, 1973, (Figure 2.5) which consists of portraits of children, tin framed and hung together on the wall.


No personal details are revealed, only that they belong to the same club or college. No indication is given whether they are still alive or dead. Some of these ‘official’ portraits might perhaps be their last image. Their presentation, seriality and framing is thoughtfully considered. They are framed with metal in a similar way to the commemorative portraits in cemeteries, chapels or war memorials. Exhibited as such, they turn into secular objects of worship, inviting our compassion and preoccupation: What have they become? Boltanski shifts the meaning and aura of these photographs and entices us to look at them differently: from modest documents they become imaginative memorials. Gathered together they also lose their individuality and form a crowd whose meaning is only dependent on our personal reading.

Figure 2.5 (left) Christian Boltanski Portraits of the Students of the Lentillères College of Secondary Education, Dijon (detail), Framed Photographs, 1972 Figure 2.6 (right) Caroline De Vries, Untitled (War memorial, Ponte Tresa, Italy), Photograph, 1997

Pierre Bourdieu observed that photography has the power to take the photographed subject out of the real. In his conclusion to Photography, A Middle-brow Art, he states: […] The photographic perception operates a ‘coming and going’ from presence to absence, from non-reality to reality, and vice versa. It is because Photography represents the object as absent that its image is improved and that it finds its function of support of the dream. […] Photography is everything except a traced reality.


It is exactly the opposite: Photography makes unreal what it fixes. The Image is literally the negative of the presence. It can regain a weight, a meaning, only in acquiring a very different type of existence: the imaginary existence of the symbol. 10

The individual war memorial to a WWII American soldier, in Italy (Figure 2.6) is illuminated by Bourdieu’s statement. It is not about fixing the presence of an individual but about commemorating its absence, knowing that this soldier stands for all soldiers who died during the war. It is a generic and symbolic image of what we want it to be; death, loss, heroism, sacrifice, propaganda… These kind of images are much more than pure physical photographs; they become incarnations of abstract concepts and their environment, and contextual presentation is crucial to this sublimation.

We can ask ourselves how we exist and are interrelated to each other, the two entities of the individual and the generic or the individual and the universal, to use nominalist terms. The view of nominalism is that ‘only individuals are real […] that words cannot refer to something real unless they refer to an individual.’ 11. Is it possible that only individuals exist and the universal is a creation of our mind designed to simplify things? Muriel Barbery in her novel L’Elégance du Hérisson states that we need to go through the particular in order to access and appreciate the universal, which transcends the latter: Like every table participates to an essence that shapes itself, every work of Art participates to a universal form, which only can give it this hallmark. Of course, we don’t immediately perceive this universality: it’s a reason why so many philosophers have been reluctant to consider the essences as real, because I only see this particular table and not the universal form “table”; only this specific painting and not the essence itself of Beauty. And even so… even so, it is there, under our eyes: every painting of a Dutch painter is an incarnation, a dazzling appearance that we can only contemplate through the singular but that gives us access to eternity, to the immateriality of a sublime form. Eternity, this invisible that we are watching. 12

Barbery magnifies the universal when she relates it to works of arts and beauty. This shows us how there are various paths the generic can take; it can simplify and therefore impoverish and annihilate the individual or on the contrary sublimate it. What can be the “sublime form” of a photographic


portrait? It can be transcended into an incarnation; the face becomes the essence of an era, generation, humanity, immortality‌ This dematerialization elevates here the photographic subject and offers him the possibility of surpassing his mortal condition; the specific beauty of a particular face is sublated into the beauty in humanity.


End Notes 1 Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography is’ in Where is the Photograph?, Brighton and Maidstone: Photoforum, Photoworks, 2003, p 21 2

Maddy is Madeleine McCann who went missing in Algarve since May 2007. Her case had been turned into a huge media event and the subject of a public search.


Hirsch, Marianne, Family frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997, p 21


Transcribed from a talk at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 2007


S Weber, John, ‘Bilder von der Strasse’ in Joachim Schmid: Photoworks 1982-2007, Brighton, London: Photoworks/Tang/Steidl, 2007, p 22 6

Transcribed from a talk at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 2007

7 Wright, Stephen, ‘Falling into his Eyes’ in Hashem El Madani, Studio Practices, Beirut, London: Arab Image Foundation, Mind the gap, The Photographer’s Gallery, 2004, p 6


Sturken Marita, ‘The Image as Memorial’ in The Familial Gaze, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999, p 194


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Translated from Bourdieu, Pierre, Un art moyen, essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Photography, A Middle-brow Art), Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1965, p 293


Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1997, p 388


Translated from Barbery, Muriel, L’Elégance du Hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2006, p 272


Chapter Three Out of Context: The Judgment of the Face


Different contexts and decontextualisations of an image can crucially affect the meaning and impact of a face in a public environment (street, book or gallery) and contribute to the process of generalisation or stereotyping.

The context set in a photograph is crucial not only to its appreciation, but also to its transmission of the original message, especially in documentary, archive and press photography. Allan Sekula in his essay On the Invention of Photographic Meaning comments on the importance of context in the understanding of a photograph: […]the photograph is an ‘incomplete’ utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context-determined […] a photograph communicates by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text; it is this text, or system of hidden linguistic propositions, that carries the photograph into the domain of readability. 1

Furthermore, when the documentary photograph is stripped of both its context and authorship, it loses its specificity and identity and becomes generic. It is rarely that we can see images in this extreme form, and it is most likely that we encounter them through the works of post-modern artists who use found photographic material to re-contextualise and create new meanings.

I would like to return to Boltanski’s Menschlich in the context of this chapter and examine in greater depth his intentions and formal strategies, such as blurring and levelling.

The photographic documents in Menschlich have been re-photographed, re-photocopied, blurred (Figure 3.1), enlarged (Figure 3.2), re-cropped or altered in all possible ways. The deliberate process of alteration and blurring of the image allows the face to gain access a universal territory. Purged of its individual features, it becomes part of the collective. Every face is representative of the others; everyone is on the same level and belongs to the majority. Boltanski explains how this alteration process allows personal identification of the face:


I often try to blur these images so people can identify with them more easily, I mean I erase people’s features a little so people can recognise themselves or someone else, someone they know […] What surprised me is that at the end they all look alike, they all got the same face, anyone looking at them could see a brother, a uncle or a sister. This is to say that when you got 1500 faces from a given society, it is a collective portrait where everyone can see himself. 2

Figure 3.1 (left): Christian Boltanski, Untitled (Excerpt from Kaddish), Photograph, 1998 Figure 3.2 (right): Christian Boltanski, Untitled (Excerpt from Kaddish), Photograph, 1998

This collective portrait of humanity has lost its identity, its temporal, spatial boundaries. Faces without names, the deceased, those still alive, we do not know any detail about them. We can only be sure of their humanity. If one is familiar with Boltanski’s work, one can recognise some of his usual sources: criminals, French schoolchildren, ‘the dead Swiss’… I think that photographs of people have this terrible quality; they said this person existed, but they said nothing about them. We just know that they were someone. So all these images of these people, have been with me all my life. I know a little but not very much about them. I mean I know who is who, but for the visitor they are all the same. There is a sort of absence of identity. 3


All these formal characteristics might suggest that the result might be a distant, passive and inhumane installation. In fact the opposite occurs. One is driven to the multitude, the identity of these people makes no difference. I am attracted to some more than others, especially the ones who stare back at me. Some gazes go straight through me, calm or vindictive, sad and loving. The panel of faces, from the brutal reality of the grain to the abyss of the ghostly blur, leaves me with an unpredictable and uncanny feeling. I feel a real presence emanating from this multitude. In The Ground of the Image Jean-Luc Nancy speaks about this presence of the image I feel when experiencing Boltanski’s work: This presence is a sacred intimacy that a fragment of matter gives to be taken in and absorbed. It is a real presence because it is a contagious presence, participating and participated, communicating in the distinction of its intimacy. 4

Boltanski has always ‘levelled’ his faces in his photographic installations. In Menschlich, anyone could be ultimately saved, no one is judged, because everyone is unknown. This is a redemptive and compassionate piece. Innocents, victims, murderers are displayed together, and it is disturbing not to be able to differentiate between them. This is part of the point; we don’t need to. Boltanski believed that ‘both the good and the bad look alike and perhaps are the same’.5 For there is no physical archetype of the executioner or of the victim, as some anthropologists and eugenists like Galton sought to demonstrate. Evil is not easy to recognise, which makes it treacherous; it is part of every one of us.

Willie Doherty’s Same Difference (Figure 3.3) is a political, engaged work, which he created in response to the media ban inflicted by the British government on the IRA at the beginning of the 90’s. It consists of a projection of words on a projected black and white photographic portrait. This portrait is in fact of Donna McGuire, who was arrested as an IRA terrorist. This, however, we do not know: it is the hidden content of the piece.


Figure 3.3: Willie Doherty, Same Difference (Detail), Slide Installation with Text, 1990

The face is still, staring at us with an indifferent gaze, remaining impassive: Who do you think I am? Am I guilty or innocent? What is guilt? Can you judge me? It is the words that are making the sentence: sometimes accusing _ ‘murderer’, ‘odious’, ‘ruthless’. Or on the opposite, redeeming _ ‘volunteer’, ‘loyal’, ‘noble’ 6. It is up to us to decide if we are ready to make our own judgment; as with Boltanski’s photographic series, our reading of theses images is highly individual.

A face can be a locus of struggle, culpability or with an intrinsic need of being uncovered, unmasked, liberated. The piece exemplifies Giorgio Agamben’s appreciation of what a face can be: The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden. The face is the only location of community, the only possible city. And that is because that which in single individuals opens up to the political is the tragicomedy of truth, in which they always already fall and out of which they have to find a way. 7


Figure 3.4 (Left): Marcus Harvey, Myra, Painting, 1995 Figure 3.5 (Right): Anonymous, Myra Hindley Mug Shot, Photograph, 1966

Like Willie Doherty, Marcus Harvey expresses concerns about society that can be too painful for other media to deal with. In his controversial Myra (Figure 3.4), crimes are imprinted on her face. The use of children’s hands to create this image jars uncomfortably with the expression of the appearance, the un-kindly or un-motherlyness of it is a deliberate juxtaposition with the hand prints. Harvey has creepily taken away some of the ambiguity, even if we weren’t aware of the history of the photograph. Myra Hindley, the infamous English child murderess, is represented solely by this image; it is a very recognisable portrait amongst some generations in the UK. Her mug shot (Figure 3.5), the one which Harvey used to paint Myra, has reinforced the imageexistence of Hindley through its ubiquity. Like an Icon requires stillness, this police photograph is fixed in time. It is much easier to demonise a still image, especially when the existence of the subject is condensed into one single representation. I find fascinating those kind of cathartic works


with different layers of reading. In this case, a first level of glamour and a second level of denunciation, pain and crime.

A third level of possession by the artist, another level by the children he uses to paint; her guilt, his understanding, their innocence and vulnerability, our disgust, curiosity or appreciation of the work.

To expand the theme of duality and guilt in the face, I wish to analyse a portrait that resonated with me from the project Der Spiegel 1989 –1991 by Isa Genzken, which is a series of 121 black and white photographs reproduced and selected from the newspaper Der Spiegel. The photos are shown without their usual informative captions and photo credits and challenge the viewer therefore to recall, or more usually, invent an event or headline. Some clues are given with the dates in the series’ titles. By a simple act of erasure, the images become enigmatic and generic. We feel compelled to interpret and categorise them because they are part of our common visual and social culture: society, drugs, police, immigration, poverty, pollution are some of the possible categories. But what do they tell us? We do not know for sure and can only risk some hypothesis. Their roughness and, at the same time, their ambiguity make us feel uneasy.

For me, from this panorama of unidentified events, emerges, finally, one face (Figure 3.6). It is the portrait of a man, of African origin, about thirty. He has a blonde bleached flat-top, wears a white t-shirt and a black leather jacket. A big black shadow stands at the left-hand side of his face. He is looking straight to the camera with an empty gaze. The portrait might resemble a mug shot but only because of the harshness of the expression of the face and its frontal pose.

Who is this man? Most people don’t know. Some do. I do. When turning the pages of Genzken’s book, his face annihilated the rest of the images. It stands alone in its dramatic physicality reminded me of a time ten years ago when I first encountered


this photograph in a French newspaper. This man is Thierry Paulin, a French serial killer who killed 19 elderly women in Paris between 1984 and 1986 in order to steal their money.

Figure 3.6: Isa Genzken, Untitled (Excerpt from Der Spiegel 1989-1991), Photograph, 2003

This photograph is one of the very few seen in the media and will remain his last image. For me this photograph is forever attached to his crimes. Does this mean that someone who discovers his identity, will change his reading of the photograph? In what way? Will he darken the face, erase the individuality of the portrait to forge a symbol of murder?

This face ceased to be merely a face and became a mask. Is the picture of a face already a mask in terms of its being fixed and frozen? Some characteristics of the mask, like distance and secrecy certainly apply to Paulin’s face. But the fundamental effect of these attributes adds to the ability


of the mask to be a device of disguise and dissimulation. Despite my apprehension, I have a certain fascination for this face that doesn’t leave me in peace. I found a resonance in Elias Canetti’s words about the mask, which helps me to understand this fascination: The tension created by the contrast between its appearance and the secret it hides can become extreme. This is the real reason for the terror the mask inspires. “I am exactly what you see” it proclaims “and everything you fear is behind me”. The mask fascinates and, at the same time, enforces distance. 8

Having only experienced this portrait with a caption “the killer of elderly women” in place of his real name, I therefore always and irrevocably associated this portrait with crime and agony. There is a clear link with Same Difference by Doherty, discussed previously. Here the word ‘killer’ has been erased by Genzken to entice us to read the image without any prejudice. At this stage, I would say it is an image ‘with suspended sentence’, awaiting his judgment or recognition by the viewer. Does knowing the story behind a picture give you a better ability to appreciate it? Doherty and Genzken make us aware of the importance of words. As well as images, they can act as stereotypes and archetypes. And like the face, they can either reveal or disguise.

In comparison, to attempt an innocent reading of this particular image, I asked a friend to describe it; without revealing its origins: From the bleached hair and the leather jacket I get the impression that the subject is someone in a musical clique or part of a gang. The facial expression could be the necessary detachment of posing for a street fashion shoot or someone who necessarily imposes a tough façade. Geographically there's something of an overall North American style. The ambience and pose reminds me of New York attitudes with their mix of cool and ambivalence. From the quality of the film I might assume an 80s punk aesthetic and this could be reinforced by the clothing. Ultimately the subject doesn't look too hard. There's almost something camp about the hair and eyes, something feminine or androgynous. He looks fresh faced, not drugged up and it's not a mug-shot, so there's nothing inherently criminal or suspicious about him.


The lighting seems stark and strong, but he is not from the front, so the portrait doesn't have the feeling of an official picture. The setting is indoors, perhaps a house or a nightclub, definitely at night, which makes me think it's a fashion or social documentary type shot. Overall there's nothing sinister about the image and it's aesthetically pleasing, which seems to say it was intentionally made so. As he doesn't smile or doesn't seem to know the photographer, it doesn't seem overly personal either.

This description shows a reading more free and unprejudiced, because the face is anonymous. There are no more barriers to imagination and narratives. This face has not just been looked at, it has, in effect, been constructed through a series of inflections.

Figure 3.7: Caroline De Vries, Template, Photograph, 2007

The encounter and fascination with an ‘image-face’ (Figure 3.7) visible in a hair salon window acted for me as the inspiration for a new photographic series about the power of a portrait visible in a public environment, its system of representation and possible interpretations.

At first sight, without caption, these images could possibly be mistaken for mug shots and could evoke sinister narratives. I framed them this way to reinforce the ambiguity embedded in the


photographs; as one sees the reflection and notes the formal pose, it becomes clear that the portraits are in fact close-ups of studio shots. They are deprived of their context and these portraits are also without identity. We are in front of façades and masks, visible but inaccessible. Are these images supposed to be aesthetic hair models or representations of British youth? These images are chosen and placed with generic intentions, but paradoxically they don’t match any fantasized beauty nor the standard beauty of the ‘average’ man.

Figure 3.8 (left): Caroline De Vries,Template #1, Elsdale St, Photograph, 2007 Figure 3.9 (right): Caroline De Vries,Template #2, Bethnal Green Rd, Photograph, 2007

As an evolution to the series, I zoomed out from the face to recover some small context (the frame of the portrait) but just enough for the viewer not to reveal the location. I started to collect the object of my fascination (Figures 3.8 and 3.9) as I could find this in numerous places. This is not a physical fantasy but a questioning of the social and gender stereotype of a face. Is this image successful in terms of its appeal to attract the passer-by? These kinds of portraits have been created as an advertising target but still conceived to fake the individual studio portrait, to attract ‘real’ people. This photograph is offering a young and well-cut man with the promise to the customer that he can become this image, he can identify himself with it. I find this image seductive not for these reasons, but because in terms of pure photography it condenses what makes an ‘ideal’ 44

portrait for me: the pose, the sobriety, the gaze, the mystery. Everything is there but nothing is said. Its seriality and similarity stabilises, fixes the image and gives it an extra density. This is also true with regard to the form of the image: the white background of the studio helps in asserting an iconic physicality, arresting it from time and place, easing the probability of self-association with the image.

Beauty and advertising images are all the more powerful and subversive because they are subliminal. Little or no effort has to be exerted to consume them, you can be unconsciously ‘hit’ by them and without establishing a critical response, they can enter your consciousness. Most advertising agencies use this strategy of seduction and glamour to strike buyers, creating uniform, vernacular campaigns. It is interesting to compare the strategy and impact of the hair salon portrait with an advertisement. Without the slogan, brand and illustrative spangles, the portrait is stripped. What we see is the embodiment of the face, timeless and unfashionable in spite of the image being a fashion shoot. Giorgio Agamben analyses this contradiction: The fact that the actors look into the camera means that they show that they are simulating; nevertheless, they paradoxically appear more real precisely to the extent to which they exhibit this falsification. The same procedure is used today in advertising: the image appears more convincing if it shows openly its own artifice. In both cases, the one who looks is confronted with something that concerns unequivocally the essence of the face, the very structure of truth. 9

I am interested in how the same face, here one of a model, when shown in series, paradoxically loses its individual substance to become an object of consumption. At the same time its presence is reinforced by its duplication.

These images also share some common points with portraits of political leaders. Some politicians and dictators realised the power of photography in asserting their authority, using it as a tool of propaganda. The unique representation turned into an idol-image, an object of worship and adoration, and when multiplied, when it entered every person’s home, it became a brainwashing


device (portraits of Mao Tze-tung, Stalin, Che Guevara). A classic photographic portrait magnifies the subject during its mandate and immortalises him beyond it. The photograph again oscillates between presence and absence. Susan Stewart in On Longing describes how an image of a human model can become abstract and immortal in their objectification. This could also perfectly apply to photographs of missing children: It is clear that in order for the body to exist as a standard of measurement, it must itself be exaggerated into an abstraction of an ideal. The model is not the realisation of a variety of differences. As the word implies, it is an abstraction or image and not a presentation of any lived possibility. Hence, in the case of the human models of advertising, we are given anonymity rather than identity. […] The idealised body implicitly denies the possibility of death. It attempts to present a realm of transcendence and immortality, a realm of the classic. This is the body-made-object. 10

Nancy Burson, the American artist, a hundred years after Francis Galton, created her Beauty Composites (Figure 3.10), mapped and assembled digitally from the faces of ‘universally’ recognised beautiful woman. Today they are no longer just a utopian dream, since their likeness can be created by plastic surgery. Like Burson, William A.Ewing warned us of the perverse risk of the search of perfection and being influenced by a standard beauty: All composites, however, exhibit a similar property: the sum of the parts is more beautiful than any single part, and the more people composited, the more exquisite the resulting face…which is also to say that our concept of human beauty is, paradoxically, based upon the mean or average, rather than the extremes of the continuum. We are drawn to a beautiful face, therefore because it is closer to the core essence of human being. 11

There is a tendency and seeming necessity for Western societies to create a uniform ‘ideal’ person whose specific features have vanished. People find it satisfying to situate themselves in society in comparison to a ‘norm’ where they can choose to either separate themselves from it or merge unnoticed into it. Will the majority in the future embrace this simplistic view of humanity by choosing to conform to an ‘average’ man?


Figure 3.10: Nancy Burson, Second Beauty Composite (Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields and Meryl Streep), Composites Photographs, 1982

It is the essence of photography to be endlessly reproducible and it is in its excess that this property can become deviant. Our most personal and unique possessions are our identity and body which are exclusively unique to ourselves. How difficult it is to remain an individual and constant person when our original body and its image can be hybridized, cloned, fragmented or aged. The irreducible property of self risks alteration when a photograph enters the media and public sphere, its uniqueness gradually effaced until the self completely disappears. Is it the inevitable fate of the medium to disembody the subject it is intended to bring to light, as Walter Benjamin pessimistically predicted? To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.


Can we see the transformation of the subject to an image not as a destruction but as a sublimation and elevation. As Maurice Blanchot writes; ‘Isn’t the task of artists, who are exiled in the illusory realm of images, to idealize beings, to elevate them to their disembodied resemblance?’ 13 47

End Notes 1

Sekula Allan, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ in Thinking Photography, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1982, p 85


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Ground of the Image, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, p 11


Transcribed from Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski,(DVD)dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000


Godfrey,Tony, Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1998, p 371


Agamben, Giorgio, Means Without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p 91


Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1984, p 376


Agamben, Giorgio, Means Without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p 94


Stewart, Susan, On Longing, Durham, London: Duke University Press, 1993, p 133


Ewing, William.A, Face: The New Photographic Portrait, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2006, p 193

12 Translated from Benjamin, Walter, L’Oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproducibilité technique (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) Paris: Allia, 2003, p 21


Blanchot, Maurice, ‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’ in The Space of Literature, Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p 256




Vernacular photography is a fiction where one projects personal narratives and indulges fantasies. It is doubly generic; by means of the common anonymity of its subject and author. It has no fixed boundaries between presence and absence, reality and unreality, and this allows, encourages, requires our speculation and reveries. The appropriation of a portrait leads to the possession of or creative responsibility for the subject. In such a way my intimacy and personal history overlaps the sentimentality and nostalgia inherent in the vernacular photograph; its particular aura acts as a trigger for my desire to incarnate its representation. I can fulfill its unknown nature or origins by adding new contexts. The image becomes inhabited and reveals the capacity of the vernacular portrait to incorporate external life.

Remarkable portraits are sometimes overlooked or abandoned by their makers. I am interested in giving these works a new visibility and density. I am therefore voluntarily changing the connotations of these often disregarded images by using contextual, serial, and comparative devices in order to create new interpretations, to be connected or coupled with the found photograph. The point is to reveal the uniqueness of such portraits, their hidden influence and beauty. The vernacular photograph is used as an ‘average’ image, a generic and innocent base, offering the possibility of humanisation. In any case, these alterations created from the vernacular portrait using reproducible strategies are reinforcing the ubiquity and presence of the subject, fixing its likeness into an iconic eternity. We can say that the vernacular photographic portrait is not more universal than individual; these are two sides of the same print.

Through its oscillation between those two entities, photography naturally challenges our conception of personhood. To a certain extent, it is possible to reproduce an existing portrait, to imitate another’s pose, to identify ourselves with a specific face. The face is our most complex exteriority and therefore a territory to be decoded, re-appropriated, impersonated; “[…] the face is solely the location of truth, it is also and immediately the location of simulation and of irreducible impropriety”1 as Agamben writes. In my work I have fabricated visual relationships between


two strangers by replicating, through the creation of facsimiles in new photographs, the facial features, appearance or gaze of unknown portraits. The simulation, represented by the pose, and often imperceptible, is paradoxically easier to simulate than the inner truth of the portrait. This experiment proves that it is possible to reproduce some physicality, signs of exteriority, but not the essence, the personhood of the portrait. Therefore a generic portrait is not obviously duplicable, clone-able, it has an individuality, frame of reference and anchor in time that is unique.

According to Baudrillard, we live in a simulacrum of reality, not in reality itself. It is the same with our own image, our portrait is a simulacrum of ourselves. One can say, being photographed is like the creation of a virginal likeness of ourselves, where our soul and past is not discernible. The photographic reproduction has its own life, is open to interpretation, and it is rarely that it will express the reality of the original. This reveals an intrinsic property of photography as a selective, interpretative filter of reality and at the same time a redemptive presenter; through our image, we can escape the weight and responsibility of our mortal condition.

A photographic portrait is not only significant from the perspective of the subject involved but from the perspective of its temporal location; the subject being abstracted and sublimed as an incarnation of an era, a culture. A photograph of a person anchors its presence temporally, not in the present (which no longer exists once the photograph is taken) but in the past (evidence of a past existence) and the future (memorial for future generations). It can belong and remain in a small and private community or family or extend its affiliation to a wider community that shares a common integration with gender, religion, ethnicity, land, history or memory. Through the image's universality, transcended into individuality, it is a powerful medium of influence, knowledge and testimony. People first see globally ‘the bigger picture’ that is the world, and then they attempt to understand it, to feel related to it by looking through the life story of individuals.


Every photographic portrait is a precious, fragile and unique archive with its own place and involvement in humanity, worthy of being deciphered and protected, and each of us has the potential chance to be endlessly discovered and sublimed under the magnifying glass of photography.

Caroline De Vries, Untitled, Photograph, 2007


End Notes 1

Agamben, Giorgio, Means Without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p 94


Bibliography Books Agamben, Giorgio, Means Without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000 Barbery, Muriel, L’Elégance du Hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2006 Benjamin, Walter, L’Oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproducibilité technique (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) Paris: Allia, 2003 Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Classics, 2000 Bourdieu, Pierre, Un art moyen, essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Photography A Middle-brow Art), Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1965 Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1984 Christian Boltanski, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1997 Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1997 Ewing, William.A, Face: The New Photographic Portrait, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2006 Hamilton, Peter, The Beautiful and the Damned, Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001 Hirsch, Marianne, Family frames, Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997 Joachim Schmid: Photoworks 1982-2007, Brighton, London: Photoworks/Tang/Steidl, 2007 Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Ground of the Image, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005 Stewart, Susan, On Longing, Durham, London: Duke University Press, 1993 Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation, New York: Palgrave Mc Millan, 1988


Essays Batchen Geoffrey, ‘fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography is’ in Where is the Photograph?, Brighton and Maidstone: Photoforum, Photoworks, 2003 Blanchot, Maurice, ‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’ in The Space of Literature, Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982 Calvino, Italo, ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ in Difficult Loves, Minerva, 1983 Lange, Susanne, ‘August Sander’s People of the 20th Century. Its Making and Impact’ in Cruel and Tender, The Real in the 20th Century Photography, London: Tate Publishing, 2003 Sekula, Allan, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ in Thinking Photography, New York: Palgrave Mc Millan, 1982 Sekula, Allan, The Body and the Archive, October, Vol. 39, 1986 Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, Mourning or Melancholia: Christian Boltanski’s Missing House, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1998 Sturken Marita, ‘The Image as Memorial’ in The Familial Gaze, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999 Wright Stephen, ‘Falling into his Eyes’ in Hashem El Madani, Studio Practices, Beirut, London: Arab Image Foundation, Mind the gap, The Photographer’s Gallery, 2004


Contacts 3, Conceptual Photography, Christian Boltanski, (DVD) dir: Alan Fleisher, 2000 Transcription from a talk with Joachim Schmid at the Photographer’s Gallery, London, 2007 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936 Hoskins, Andrew, An Introduction to Media and Collective Memory



The Universal Nature of the Vernacular Photographic Portrait  

The Universal Nature of the Vernacular Photographic Portrait

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