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Do We Live in the Facial Expressions of Others?

You are looking out at me, but from where… from when… and why? I see your face, but do you see me? Is it really you who is looking, who was looking?

A portrait is equally of someone and by someone. And I wonder to what extent the latter fact is visible: not only in the eyes or the gaze of the sitter, but also in the characteristics of the image itself, whether in composition, texture, color palette, or otherwise.

Sometimes a name is known or has been assigned to the person portrayed; nevertheless, many a depicted person remains anonymous while their image lives on. Sometimes the portraitist is more well-known than the subject; sometimes the subject’s fame outlives that of the portraitist.

When photography burst onto the public stage around the 1840s, portraiture underwent a rapid democratization. In the craze for affordable “real-life” depictions, many people who were too poor to commission a painter or draughtsman had their portrait taken by means of the new technology. In his critical essay “Salon of 1859,” the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, who was skeptical about such newfangled gadgets, scorned the widespread acceptance of the medium: “A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers.” Baudelaire instead preferred the monsters of his own fantasy above what he deemed “trivial,” namely that which already exists, which he considered useless and tedious to depict. Yet Baudelaire also expressed admiration for the portrait in the same essay: “A portrait! What could be simpler and more complex, more obvious and more profound?” It is unclear whether Baudelaire distinguished between the painted portrait and the photographed face (and what could be simpler and more complex than the latter?).

I count the artist Alberto Giacometti among the greatest portraitists of the previous century. He was not familiar with how to use a camera, and as far as I know he never photographed a person, if he ever photographed anything at all. He analyzed a person’s face or posture with a painter’s eye and sculptor’s hand. Although he was a superb draughtsman, he always wavered and was never able to finish a portrait, only to abandon it. For Giacometti, a face meant everything – the shape or position of a nose alone could be too much.

Giacometti’s portraits, in particular his drawings and paintings, hover at the edges of the unrepresentable. During the 1920s, Giacometti had a brief affair with the Surrealist movement, but he changed his mind after its leader André Breton boldly declared that “we could do away with portraits because nowadays people know what a face is.” Giacometti responded in shock, “I don’t.”

Can a face ever be fully known? I’m sure Giacometti would have agreed with novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s memorable phrase, cited by Christian Wiman is his profound book-length essay My Bright Abyss: “To turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything.”

Is this why the portrait never fails to fascinate and has remained so enduring as a genre? Once your portrait is made, you are immortalized, at least in the sense that the portrait will almost surely outlive your physical being. And a photographic portrait — in contrast to a painting — inherently reflects your physical presence, capturing your natural appearance as much as possible.

Taking snapshots runs the risk of catching the subject unawares, whereas the slow sitting, a deliberate agreement between model and photographer, usually results in a portrait closer to life: closer to who you are or how you are perceived in the eyes of others. (Or do we only wish this to be true?) Walter Benjamin had this to say about slowness, in his influential essay “A Little History of Photography”(1931), reflecting on photographic incunabula from nearly a century earlier: “The procedure itself caused the subjects to live their way into, rather than out of, the moment; during the long duration of the exposure, they grew into the picture […].”

Laila Mubarak’s portraits give me the sense that her sitters have grown into her photographs, or that they are still growing into them. The portraits that display a slight discomfort leave an especially lasting impression, as if something remains unfinished, a spark that will continue kindling the relationship. Mubarak aptly labeled some of her series “work in progress,” which makes me curious as to how the portraits, including the relationship between model and photographer, will develop further.

A true portrait in a sense is always a work in progress, a lifelong – or even longer – means by which someone grows into a picture. And is a photographic portrait truer than a painted or a drawn portrait? Does the sitter grow more fully into a photographic portrait than the portraitist does? Is the sitter’s appearance merely recording itself by virtue of the camera and its operator?

In the end we are all drawn by life, and all the photographs ever taken of a person will depict some essential facets of who that person is (or must have been), even if a person’s voice and smell and gestures are absent.

Am I also looking at myself by looking at (a photograph of) your face? And you, who are looking (or looked) into the eyes or camera of the photographer: you are already eye-to-eye with everyone who will ever meet your gaze through your portrait, which retroactively becomes their portrait as well.

I want to believe that we indeed live in the eyes of others, but also in their portraits, their tales, their memories, their dreams… and thus I agree with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who so deeply thought through the mysteries of human perception, that “I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine.”

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