Autumn 2004

Facing up to unreality

About Face: Photography and the Death of the Portrait

Hayward Gallery, London, 24 June – 5 September 2004

In an essay in the catalogue accompanying this large-scale exhibition, curator William A. Ewing argues that ‘the face’ is replacing the traditional photographic portrait in the same way that ‘the body’ superseded the historical nude in the feminist-informed work of the 1970s and 1980s. This overarching theme – the privileging of ‘the face’ as a conceptual construct – is used to tie together work that spans a range of technical and intellectual approaches. Part of the problem with confronting this exhibition is its sheer scale: over 120 works are represented. Most of these are by artists, but the show also includes photojournalism, fashion photography and, in an act of calculated opportunism, the infamous Iraqi ‘Most Wanted’ deck of playing cards. It makes sense that in an earlier incarnation, at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, the exhibition was shown in two parts. In the Hayward’s upper galleries it appears overhung and often conceptually reductive.

The first section of the show focuses predominantly on ‘straight’ photography, images of people made with cameras. Some of this work is directly engaged with issues of portraiture, questioning the traditional notion that an image can convey essential truths about its sitter. The preponderance of work in series in this section testifies to the overarching influence of Thomas Ruff’s large-scale representations of his friends, full frontal head shots whose formal simplicity echoes the blank, impassive gaze of his subjects.

This section includes compelling work, including Lee Friedlander’s late self-portraits, in which the artist poses as though he were sleeping, and Philippe Bazin’s photographs of newborns, their faces contorted in expressions we cannot help but read as indicative of trauma and emotion. The curatorial device that holds them together, however, seems trite and dated. Anyone working with images, and indeed anyone subjected to the barrage of images that contemporary culture feeds us, understands that photographic truth is a contradiction in terms. Of course the camera lies; we have long since stopped believing that that an image can reveal a person’s soul.

The exhibition’s attempt to be exhaustive results not only in strange inclusions but perplexing categorisations. This first part of the show is divided according to what the curators see as the greater or lesser control of the photographer over his or her subject. ‘In “Facing Up”, we are told, ‘the photographer is in control’, whereas ‘In “Facing Down” the photographer meets resistance from the subject.’ This may come as a surprise to some of the artists, and indeed some of the subjects, in the respective sections. Artists always exercise control over the images they produce: this is one of the defining features that distinguishes a photographic artwork from an amateur snapshot. And while the passers-by unaware of the presence of a camera in the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the peaceful dead in Rudolf Schaefer’s photographs may be described as passive subjects, it is difficult to see why, for instance, Rineke Dijkstra’s images of a young mother are slotted into ‘Facing Up’, while Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s pictures of mixed-race women are in ‘Facing Down’.

If the first part of the exhibition focuses on dispelling the myth of photographic veracity, the bulk of the rest of the show is dedicated to showing how technological advancements have enabled artists to construct and manipulate images. The increasing sophistication with which digital images can be constructed, and the resulting ability of image-makers to create worlds that bear little relationship to external realities, are highlighted in the catalogue essay and exhibition wall texts as if the debates over virtual reality that dominated theory in the early 1990s had never taken place.

The proliferation of digitally manipulated images, particularly in the second half of the show, creates a queasy, airless atmosphere. Technique far outweighs concept in some of the work. For the series ‘No Compassion’, Jirí David has doctored stock agency photographs of world leaders, reddening their eyes and montaging his own tears onto their faces, as if crying were all compassion comprised. A more interesting use of montage techniques predating David’s images by almost twenty years is Nancy Burson’s Warhead I, a composite face constructed from the features of the leaders of countries with nuclear capabilities in 1982.

The excess of manipulated imagery in the second half of the show approaches kitsch. Crowded by technically impressive but intellectually unchallenging work, some of the most interesting images in the back gallery are derived from found material. Emmanuelle Purdon’s ‘Femmes de Mystère’ are black and white photographs of female figures from historical paintings. The graininess of Purdon’s prints softens the painterly aspects of her source images, making it possible to read the resulting pictures as credible, soft-focus shots of modern women. José Luís Neto has enlarged details of documentary photographs dating from 1913, showing Portuguese prisoners with and without hoods. Blown up almost beyond recognition, the eerie figures emerge as if from a haze, the pixellation of newsprint appearing like a pointillist device. These images acknowledge history and the passage of time, unlike the glossy, airless images of beauty queens, beauticians, politicians and pop stars that surround them.

Situated midway between the predominantly lens-based photography and the digital images, the show takes a detour to address direct manipulations of the face through cosmetics and plastic surgery. Orlan is represented with images that display her surgically altered face fused with pre-Columbian pottery. Celebrity rears its head here, in Valérie Belin’s pictures of Michael Jackson lookalikes in heavy stage make-up, and in Alison Jackson’s much reproduced fantasy images of the Royal Family. Employing lookalikes and careful editing, Jackson uses the motifs of reportage and official portraiture to stage fictional scenarios: the Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed with a baby; Diana watching from a distance as Charles and Camilla share a private moment.

Somewhere tucked away in this sprawling show are points of departure for more interesting investigations of what the face might mean in an age increasingly in thrall to homogenised ideas of beauty and the seduction of technology on the one hand, and consciously suspicious of these things on the other. In his catalogue essay, Ewing cites the story of how, in the early days of portrait photography, patrons at Nadar’s Paris studio were so unfamiliar with their own faces that they did not notice if they were given the wrong portrait. Visitors to ‘About Face’ are more likely to suffer from the opposite problem, a hyper-awareness of the fictions of the face. Despite Ewing’s claims for a new genre, emphasising the face as a category in itself overrides other, often far more interesting and salient, aspects of the work on show.

Rachel Taylor, writer, London

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004

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