From identical twins and mere siblings, to cousins first and far removed, to unrelated souls of like lineage, to utterly random pairs of persons, at any point on the spectrum, two people differ in ways both subtle and manifest. One can propound little counterargument here. But what of the single individual? How singular is he in his affect? How true is the statement that “John Doe is John Doe”? In truth, it is not – visually, at least.
At the simplest, every individual changes from year to year, season to season, hour to hour. We wear the changes wrought by age, for sure, but our appearances also reflect our circumstances, both transient and persistent, as well as our internal emotional states. The wearers of hearts on sleeves certainly reveal their emotional hand, but so, too, do the emotionally poker faced among us. No matter how close to the vest one holds his emotional cards, glimpses of emotional inner workings eventually seep to the surface, given adequate time and space.
Photographers of people learn to capture those inner machinations in photographs, or they fail in their photographic mission. Sometimes photographers happen upon persons in full reveal of their emotions, whether it be pure joy of a parent or the grief of a funeral mourner. Such are the low hanging fruit. But even absent such overt emotional displays, candid photographs of people can still reveal the inner humanity, sometimes by capturing lost thought writ large on an un-self-conscious face, other times through a Cartier-Bresson decisive moment of human reaction. Yet while such photographs capture something of the person photographed, none adequately conveys completely the person in the photograph. A crying mourner is at other times a laughing mother; a rejoicing sports fan also a contemplative church goer; and enthralled young lover alternatively a consternated stander-in-line. To capture any one of these personal moments is to capture only part of the whole.
So one may turn to more formal portraiture, whether environmental or in-studio, to try to reveal a deeper reflection of the subject. The resulting photography can be revelatory, but it can also be deceptive.
The most obvious deception is so pervasive that it largely goes unnoticed: the “say cheese” smile. We have been taught, all of us, to smile for the camera. Why? What does a pasted-on smile-for-the-camera smile reveal about the person in the photograph? Few of us, if any at all, wear camera ready grins as we go about our daily lives. Rather, we are lost in thought or concentrating on tasks at hand. Rarely, therefore, does a camera-ready smile reflect our present inner state. Yet despite its inherent mendacity, the smile for the camera trope persists, and the essence of the person in the photo continues to elude the photographic frame.
This essence of the photographic subject – the truth of the person in the picture – lies behind the toothful countenance, and portrait photographers – at least those worth their salt – brush aside the facade. They do so by establishing a personal relationship, however transient, with the person being photographed. Devoid of meaningless veneer and embracing a human connection, the resulting photograph begins to reveal sincerely the person in it. A viewer of such a photograph recognizes this authenticity, whether consciously or not, and the way is paved for a deeper, empathetic connection between viewer and subject. The viewer’s connection with the photographic subject is in some sense the photographer’s connection with the subject, transferred to the viewer through the medium of photography.
But if it is true that we all wear multiple emotional hats – that we all play the role of mourner and rejoicer, peaceful contemplater and angry arguer – then which inner person is the photographer connecting with? Which of the multiple facets of personality comprising the person is the photographer tapping into in those fleeting, fraction-of-a-second moments? Perhaps the photographer is not tapping into any, but is instead, intentionally or not, manipulating the subject to reveal not an inner truth of the person, but instead something projected on her. In the end, every photograph, like news reports of a moon landing or naval activities in the Gulf of Tonkin, may be truth or lie. We the consumer must decide whether or not to trust the source.