April 19, 2020

X-Ray Mirrors: Visible Unseen Identities in Photographs

As a college professor, I have been scrambling to generate projects that my photography students can complete at home. The photomontage below is my test run of a Windows and Mirrors assignment, inspired by an excerpt from Sytze Steenstra’s book Song and Circumstance, about the work of artist and musician David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame.

According to an already classical distinction, proposed by John Szarkowsky, leader of the Department of Photography of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, photography can be approached “as a means of self-expression (as a mirror),” and “as a method of exploration (as a window).” Bryne freely combines both approaches, and casually erases the distinction:

Inside Looking Out and Outside Looking In
"Windows are mirrors through which we see ourselves reflected. Our view is colored by our prejudices, history and class.  We see reflected our perceptions of the landscape, the skyline, the people on the street, the weather, and what they mean to us.  Photographs are also mirrors.  In them we see reflected our own internal biases, our own assumptions, our own presuppositions. [...]  What we don’t see is a reflection of our face, we see instead a reflection of our interior.  An X-ray mirror."

I want to grow as an artist and take things less literally.  Obviously, this was not the case here.  However, Bryne's ideas conjured up an assignment that students could photograph at home and a device for me to teach Photoshop techniques.

Perhaps this incomplete draft allows for more viewing ambiguity:

Open Windows - Incomplete or Completely Better
The other day, I looked through a prized possession:  the exhibition catalog from a retrospective of painter Lyonel Feininger.  His works make me swoon.  One painting, Mill Windows, changed my life by sparking my Reality-Based Abstraction series.

Dotted among the paintings were photographs by, and of, Feininger.  The black and white images brought me back to a different aesthetic and time.  Looking up from the couch, I saw this cloud and wanted to capture it in black and white.

Portal to the Past and Present
Feininger sketched scenes before painting them.  He also sometimes took pictures.  I have previously described how I usually take a single frame as a sketch prior to layering a series of images into an in-camera multiple exposure.

The above window can thus become:

Digital Prism
Until now, I considered the image combing to be complete in the camera, rather than additional after the fact manipulation.  However, likely informed by a recent spate of teaching Photoshop techniques, I combined multiple versions of the above image by flipping and flopping it:

Reflections on the Inner Light
Bryne asserts that what photographers include and omit in their frames inform us equally about the creator's identity.  Along these lines, I love this quote from portrait photographer Richard Avedon, "My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph."

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at CreateLookEnjoy.com  Instagram: @john.nordell