The Death of the Death of the Portrait

By Richard Wright, 9 February 2005

In the Hayward’s show About Face exploring the fate of portraiture, the image of the face became a mask that hid its technical and discursive means of production – reviewed by Richard Wright

It’s hard not to like a show that’s full of faces. The general mood of wonder and fascination makes it hard not to forgive its reductive pop discourse of the ‘death of the portrait’. But such throwaway theory makes it difficult to account for the finely calibrated visual parameters of the human image. Any theoretical or technical analysis tends to be quickly overtaken by a human perceptual system that is subtle enough to register all the infinitesimal visual nuances of a face.

Here’s an example: in Raphael Hefti’s photographic series Estheticiennes, department store beauticians are all heavily made-up using the ranges they promote. Four are shown confronting the viewer head on like a police line-up. Unlike most of the other exhibits, there is no apparent digital manipulation of these photographic records, yet what is it that makes them appear so unnaturally predatory, like a row of vampires mesmerising their victims? When you look very closely you can see that the photographs have been taken with two vertical lighting panels on either side of the camera. This has created two vertical highlights on either side of the pupils, producing an unsettling ‘cats eyes’ effect. This effect is quite subliminal, possibly even unintentional, a by-product of the apparatus.

If this is typical of conventional photography, how much more difficult will it be to account for the effects created by sophisticated digital compositing, retouching and calculation. Even when pictures use the same imaging techniques they can lead to entirely different representational outcomes. Nancy Burson’s classic of early computer art, Warhead I (1982), is constructed by blending together the world’s leaders according to the proportion of their nuclear arsenals. The resultant image portrays a dark, calculating character crowned by Brezhnev’s heavy eyebrows, Reagan’s craggy jowls and Thatcher’s pinched lips. In the year 2000, Chris Dorley-Brown created The Face of 2000 by photographing 2000 residents of Haverhill and morphing them all together to produce a single face. The result is a soft, almost featureless, angelic-looking white youngster who appears to be about fourteen years old. Whereas Burson’s image still seems to function as a representation of a graspable set of political data, Dorley-Brown has updated this process of computerised blending to function on an industrial scale. It operates not only as a visualisation of the town’s population, but also as a visualisation of the very process of representational politics itself, revealing it to be an inadequate, mythical chimera.

Of course none of this comes across in the show itself. Like all big gallery shindigs, it is limited to showcasing only one or two examples of each artist’s body of work, as well as offering only a brief gallery caption by way of explanation. These constraints can be very limiting. On the website of The Face of 2000 [], by contrast, you can trace the process of morphing right through from its initial categorisations into gender and age groups. For example, you can also see how The Face of 2000 grows up from the under fives through to old age, an apparent ageing process that is actually sampled from only one single year of time.

Most of the artists in this show have chosen to take the fashion aesthetics of celebrity as their starting point, perhaps feeling that this is the dominant genre of facial imagery. They also tend to stick within the concrete, literal register of photography instead of brazenly announcing the image's artificiality in order to work at a symbolic or analytical level. Yet despite the viewer’s usual unquestioning acceptance of a naturalistic photo-graphic image, perhaps the greater visual acuity characteristic of facial perception might allow a more pene-trating and revealing encounter than normal. But when curator William A Ewing discusses the new aesthetics of 'the face' in his catalogue essay, he appears to regard it as no more revealing than the valueless play of expressions worn by a model. The show seems to treat the face's visual complexities as cosmetic, as capable of being only a factual result of the image's manufacture instead of being reflective of it.

The human image has been invaded by the competing interests of fashion, ethnicity and demographics. Yet through all this the face retains its sense of tactile presence. Faciality operates at the outer reaches of cognition yet far closer than critical distance would allow, keeping us alert to any signs of agency working beyond its immediate contours. This concreteness of the photographic or video image might be further developed to the point where it could slip between different modes of perception, between different subcutaneous tissues of information. So is the human eye's sensitivity to facial imagery enough proof that it can detect the traces of these formative processes and initial contexts?

At the end of the show were a couple of computer workstations running an identikit type program called Ultimate Flash Face by Max Ishchenko []. This simple game that invited the visitor to assemble a self portrait out of a random collection of eyebrows, noses and hairlines had the effect of reducing our nations cultural intellectuals to the state of children squealing with delight. Yet after my companion and I had printed out the results from this software system, this successor to portraiture, something did not look quite right. We realised that it had left a subtle self-image of its own. The standardised facial elements we were given to choose from had the effect of rendering everyone at about twenty one years old (roughly the age of the writer of the software as far as I could see).

The challenge for artists is to attune the visual register with a level of material production by approaching the whole process as one of authoring. The question is no longer whether we can still take the portrait at face value, but whether we can take the underlying algorithm at face value. Without this sense of awareness, an exhibition like this is in danger of degenerating into an identikit collection of isolated snapshots. The face such an exhibition presents to the world is one tailored only for a fashion parade of art gallery shows.   a

Richard Wright's <richard AT> is currently working on Catastrophic Code, a large software project to create a 17th century operating system

About Face: Photography and the Death of the Portrait, Haywood Gallery. London, 24 June -  5 September 2004