Monday, July 6, 2009

Facelessness vs. masquerade: some notes and a question


The type photograph: an illustration in a surgical journal.

The distinctive characteristic: the blacked-out face.

The literary equivalent: "Names have been changed to protect the innocent."

The implication: a forensics of the image. Blacking out as a fiduciary duty; obliteration as an ethical responsibility. Obligation to a conception of the human outside the photograph's frame. The consequence of making the photograph: having been photographed, an individual becomes typical; that is, nothing but the paradigm of a category. The category is: unphotographed individuals who will eventually be operated on by surgeons who have viewed the category's paradigm photograph.


The type photograph: a fashion photograph.

The distinctive characteristic: unconcealed artifice; fantasy poses and Photoshop.

The literary equivalent: "It is myself that I remake" (Yeats). Hoaxes (Rahila Khan, JT Leroy, Little Tree . . .) as graffiti cosmetics masking the prior personality of their creator or (in the case of trickster hoaxes like the ones perpetrated by "Ern Malley" or Alan Sokal) of the creator's victim.

The implication: obligation to what has or will become of the individual after she enters the photographic frame. Masking as an aesthetic duty, a gesture of completion, a way of saying art's phrase, "The End."

The consequence of making the photograph: heroin chic, for instance. The distressing (drug addiction, self-starvation) aestheticized for a religious purpose: assurance for the viewer of the photograph that distress is for others, not for her. Photography as a promise of immortality; photography as a world within the frame which nullifies the extra-photographic.

The question

An illustration in a surgical journal and an illustration in a fashion magazine stand near the two extremes of photographic representation. The "little does she know" effect that's called dramatic irony accrues to most photographs that come to us as testimonies of change ("I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days" -- Emily Dickinson, letter 268, about photographs). But the surgeon's undisguisedly anonymized image is essentially irony-free and the fashion photograph is so consciously ironic that it is immune to ironic views from outside its own frame.

Between those extremes, however, is almost nothing but irony. Is it even possible, for instance, to look at a nineteenth-century photograph and not see it as suffused with hints at a future that only we can understand? I certainly can't imagine myself exercising any claim to a vision free of the connotations I've been educated to. War on the way, I think as I look at the image from the past; environmental and economic change coming; at the least, old age and death. But little do the people and their world in the photograph know. The irony has me down pat. It won't let my sight get up and break free.

But can there be a general way of seeing that partakes of the freedom from circumstance and change that is promised by the fashion photograph?

Can photography become the masquerade of its formal elements? Can it be taught to dance within its frame until time, enchanted, tiptoes away into the surrounding dark?