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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Something to Look At

Jonathan Blaustein of aPhotoEditor wrote about a thing (here) and mentioned a photo that was in the thing. It's an interesting photo. It's this photo. Let's look at it.

This is George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama. At the time this photo was made (1963) by Avedon, he was an avowed racist. Segregation nahw, segregation tomarrah, segregation forevah!

My method, as regular readers will know, begins with an inventory the frame. It is a man. He is posing for a portrait, the standard tropes of Male Portrait are all there: Shoulders turned, near shoulder dropped, face straight on to the camera, head tilt toward aft shoulder, chin up. Any sufficiently low-rent photography forum will contain any number of old men who can and will recite this litany on demand. It is a stern, strong, masculine pose. It is also remarkably uncomfortable.

His suit, shirt, and tie appear to fit well, and as far as we can tell are consistent with the fashionable body-hugging slim-fit narrow tie of the times. What we can see of his clothing is consistent with a certain severity of appearance.

Lighting is pretty Avedon, not quite dead on single light, a very nicely dialed in degree of modelling.

His hair is thinning, combed strictly back, gelled in place. Both his face and his gaze are exactly aligned on the camera, note the symmetry of the ears. His attention appears to be completely on the camera's lens, and by the usual alchemy, on us the viewer. His raised chin creates the impression that he is looking down at us from a higher vantage point. His left eye is centered in the frame. The immediate impression is of an extreme and negative intensity of attention, of gaze. The corners of his mouth turn down severely. A closer look shows that his eyes are black. An accident of eye color, lighting, and the black and white process has eliminated any differentiation between the iris and pupil.

The short, strictly tamed hair, and the absolutely dead-on alignment of the face with the absolutely direct gaze-from-above combine with the black eyes and the set of the man's lips to produce, I think, a sensation of angry intensity. Anyone, I think, would read this face as intense and somewhere between the edge of anger and barely contained rage.

This is perhaps a bridge too far in terms of reading-in, but note also that his head is cocked to the side. This is what birds do when they inspect something they intend to eat. Whether people would specifically read this is dubious, but he certainly does look a little like a bit like an eagle inspecting a wounded mouse.

We in this era, knowing who George Wallace was and the kinds of policies he espoused, don't like him. We likely tend to read this as the expression of essentially an enraged and dangerously intelligent animal. We might reasonably see his expression as one of personal animosity or simply predation — at a basic level he intends to eat us. A supporter might have read it as righteous indignation this guy is gonna go bust some heads, the kinds of heads I want to see busted. Still, I don't quite see how even an ardent supporter would have felt entirely comfortable under that predatory gaze.

But let us, just for fun, look closer. The forehead is smooth, the jowls are not quite loose. The sitter might be holding a little tension in the back of his jaw, but while his face is certainly not softly affectionate, he does not seem to be holding much tension in it. Try this experiment:

Look at the picture for a few seconds, let it soak in. Now cover his mouth. Just the mouth. Let that soak in for a little time. Repeat this a few times, and attend especially to his brows.

What do you see?

What I see is this: with his mouth uncovered, the brows seem to gather tension. Cover his mouth, the brows seem to relax.

Examining some other photos, I conclude that to a degree, George Wallace simply suffered from Resting Angry Face. Certainly he also spent a lot of time being angry, or at any rate appearing so to his supporters. It was kind of his thing.

A personal reaction, now: the man looks inescapably Hispanic to me. Something in the rendering of the print sells his skin as slightly brown, his dark eyes support that idea, and there's something about the way his face is shaped that reminds me of a certain kind of Mexican gentleman that is, somehow, familiar to me. Somehow he feels a little Anthony Quinn, a little Danny Trejo, to me.

I still absolutely buy the illusion of slightly crazed intensity, even after I have worked out that it is in part illusory.

Avedon took several other portraits of the man. There is one other in circulation which looks like it's from this session. That one does not show the intensity of gaze, although neither is it remotely flattering. There is one more, taken when Wallace is much much older and has changed his coat to become an avowed integrationist and supporter of racial equality. In this latter his expression is almost identical to the photo under consideration here, though he is disheveled and posed quite differently. The black eyes, down-turned mouth, and severe, direct, gaze are all present. He even has his chin lifted a trifle.

At this point is is worth reminding ourselves that Avedon selected this frame from many, and surely picked the one with the intensity he was looking for. With that in mind, one can can readily imagine that the session, however it went, was less intense than this picture.

Blaustein, in his piece, sees the photo as hate-filled with extra animosity directed at (gay) Avedon. This is certainly consistent with the appearance of the photograph, and I see what he means. I do not, after spending more time than is sensible, think that it is a the ground truth of the thing, though. I think Wallace is just putting on his standard Serious Engaged Face, which combined with posing instructions from Avedon and the black and white process, produced this thing.

To me, it calls in to question Avedon as portraitist. Looking back on what I recall of Avedon's pictures, it occurs to me that his method did not particularly pretend to get at a person's essence. I have no notion of what the critical consensus on Avedon is, so perhaps I have nothing new whatever to say here (or, perhaps, I fly in the face of any such consensus. A boy can dream!)

Standard portraiture at least pretends to be revealing something of a person's truth, and I suppose that at times it does that. Avedon was less interested in the person, and more interested in locating and photographing a persona, some theatrical, public, veneer that a person might project. That veneer might, or might not, reflect the inner life of the person, and to be honest, I can't see that Avedon gave much of a damn whether it did or not.

This photo of George Wallace strikes me very much as a persona, a projection of someone's (Avedon's? Wallace's? Some collaboration, or just an accident?) idea of a man. A not very nice man.

I suspect that Wallace, about whom I admit I know very little, was likely a hollow man, as are many politicians. I suspect that there was very little of a complex man inside, that he was largely a persona, put on and off, altered as necessary to fit circumstances. Perhaps what Avedon teased out of him that day, though a mere shell, was really all there was anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Well observed, amazing what black eyes can do to a character, I'm thinking Goya