Facing the Camera

Alberto Manguel wonders how much of a person the camera can capture  @ Geist.

Photography is the art of definition. However objective or whimsical, measured or unfair, aloof or biased, experienced or amateurish the photographer, the eye of the camera determines the existence of a certain reality which then becomes for the viewer that reality, much like our histories become what we call history. No amount of learned skepticism succeeds entirely in diffusing the sense of conviction given by a photographic image. The mind knows that there are other ways of seeing, other aspects of that reality, other attitudes and poses. And yet the mind believes: “If the camera saw it, it must be true.” The photographic image is always definitive.

This is certainly the case when it comes to photographing people. We humans think that we have a single, unique face: photography disproves us. The myriad unique faces that, throughout our lives, are captured by the camera, from babyhood to that final face that we will never see, create a multiple, ever-changing face that can never quite be pinned down to one we can call uniquely ours. Who are these people? we ask, flipping through an album of our own faces. How can all these different features, tints of skin, looks and gestures, all be that single person we call “I”? Never was Rimbaud’s dictum so true as in the case of our portraits. The photographed “I” is always another.

But not any other. Across from our changing face, the photographer’s lens observes and chooses. The sitter may be the same one, over and over, altering position and attitudes according to the moods and seasons, but the eye of the camera captures one particular instant, one distinct face, one selected “I” from that plural subject. It may be that thanks to the perspicacity and skill of the photographer, seeing our portrait in black and white, or colour, fixed and framed, we arrive at an acceptance (or recognition) of a face we then can call ours. But behind every selected or official portrait are crowds of others calling out to the viewer: “Choose me! Don’t forget me! I too exist! I too am I!