In his biweekly column, Pinakothek, Luc Sante excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past.
The press photographer’s task is to obtain a likeness of the person who is at the center of the news. This proves difficult when the subject, who is either accused of crimes or tied, however flimsily, to someone who is, wants to avoid being photographed at all costs. Hounded at every step, unable to escape, even in shackles, the subject resorts to makeshift concealments—hat, sleeve, lapel, handkerchief, newspaper—in order to prevent facial capture. The photographer can only pursue, shadow, perhaps verbally goad the subject, waiting for a slip or a stumble that will cause the mask to drop. When that fails to happen, the photographer’s sole option is to photograph the mask. The public, inflamed by press coverage of the case, wants a face it can charge with blame (and, often enough, spread the blame to faces that bear it a superficial resemblance), but is instead offered a metonym: hat, handkerchief, newspaper. The photographer, in quest of a portrait, has delivered in its place an event: the defeat of portraiture by the subject.
Power manifests itself for the lens through stance, apparel, and furnishings, though always in the visual language of its particular culture. Power in the West has often been embodied by broad expanses of durable material: wool, silk, oak. The attached faces, through an intersection of intent and heredity, are always interchangeably anonymous. Power wants a face that will make the shareholders feel as comfortable as in their own country club, but it doesn’t want the public to have a face on which to pin their grandmother’s eviction. The face of the company, consequently, is a suit of clothes. When vice presidents are fired, they are replaced by other vice presidents, and nobody notices because they wear the same suits. By further concealing those instantly forgettable features, power explicitly draws attention to its implacable anonymity, furthermore asserting its impunity. A corporate board wearing surgical masks, along with their secretaries, may be setting off to rob a bank—which is what they might do all day long anyway, through legal means. The masks are gratuitous; the culprit is the social structure.
The infant is taken to the neighborhood photographer for its first formal portrait. Behold its creamy white perfection! Although darkroom haste and the passage of many decades have robbed it of its features, you can still appreciate those tiny ears and the soft dome of the skull, tilted just so. Behind the child, though, is an ominous draped form, with vaguely human proportions and contours. This is known as the “hidden mother”—an actual term with reference to photographs from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The mother has come along to calm and steady the child, but has chosen to remain unseen by the camera. But why? Is it because she doesn’t want to compete with her baby, whose star turn this represents? Does the photographer charge by the face? Or is this a kind of ritual self-abnegation, of the sort that mothers have historically been conditioned to observe? Does the mother take her meals separately? Has she appeared in photographs with the infant’s father? Will the in-laws love the child less if presented with a reminder that there is more than one parent?
About the subject of this picture we know one thing for sure: she has a lovely, full bottom. Oh, also she has dark hair, as you can make out from the line extending under the front of her badly adjusted wig. And she is somewhere in Europe, in a bedroom featuring a mirror-topped, art-moderne dresser reminiscent of brothel photos by Brassaï. Whatever game is being played here, it requires that the subject see herself as not herself, triply distanced by mirror, wig, and mask. Is she, like the shrouded mother, occluding herself for the benefit of the featured player, which in this case is her ass? She could be married to someone other than the photographer, or posing as the Swedish au pair they both fancy, or staging a demonstration for a class of psychoanalytic interns under the supervision of Dr. Jacques Lacan. In any scenario, her faintly guessable face plays a secondary but hardly negligible role. The wig isn’t a cheap one, and its slippage might be deliberate. It serves in combination with the mask to give her a passingly eighteenth-century aspect: a debauchee airlifted from a painting by Fragonard and deposited, a bit the worse for wear, in the pages of Juliette. The photograph is a circular riddle that causes the viewer’s eye to travel, back and forth, from south to north pole and back again, always somehow expecting a resolution that is locked away forever.
And then you have the ostentatious mask, the panto-mask, the mask that is not a concealment but an enhancement. Once a year the subject slips the bonds of his aging face, his constricting daily uniform, his suffocating routine, and submits happily to hoots and jeers. He knows he is ridiculous, but now he is freed for an evening from the burden of having to pretend otherwise. Later he will tear the paper waistcoat, step on the paper hat, ruin the papier-mache bill with a flood of beer, and have to be helped home and up the stairs by younger men assigned to the task. The photograph he will keep in an album as a reminder of his triumph, his successful conversion into an object. If only he could have stayed that way, perhaps ornamenting someone’s mantel, laughed at regularly and needing to be dusted. It would feel as good as being drunk and almost as good as being dead.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life, Evidence, Kill All Your Darlings, and The Other Paris.