The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 by Max Kozloff
Published by Phaidon Press, 2007, www.phaidon.com
336 pages, 280 black & white photographs, 70 color photographs
When the findings of history, a discussion of uses and the reconstruction of story blend with criticism, portrait content, I hope, is enlivened. Still, the narratives within it keep on turning, like the expressions on faces, themselves… (p. 11)
Distinguished critic Max Kozloff navigates a fascinating journey through time and imagery in “The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900” (Phaidon, 2007). Kozloff asserts straightaway, “I fly my own colours here, as a critic…” (p. 11) Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is an ambitious work. A lot happened in the 20th Century; much of it was photographed and filmed.
The book’s epic scope is streamlined by its focus on portraiture, while the theatrical motif tethers human interactions, and photographic verity, to the suspension of disbelief. The allusive, elusive phrase, “the theatre of the face,” is natively rich. It prompts the storyteller in the critic: he claims to tell “portrait stories.” Kozloff’s style is close to the personal essay. He narrates in a disarming conversational voice that is skeptical and literary; always penetrating in substance. In fact, Kozloff has written a page-turner.
The Theatre of the Face is carefully structured. Each of the six chapters develops a specific theme as the work of a select group of photographers undergoes nuanced analyses. The six themes interlink and gradually arc over the 20th Century. Occasional references to the 19th Century are pointed and revelatory.
The book’s dual thematic-chronological structure is an excellent organizing principle. It provides an armature on to which the protean dimensions of 20th century photographic practice assume intelligible shape, with no loss of complexity. Kozloff finds room to discuss portraits made by newly-discovered, historically obscure photographers alongside that of familiar stars of the medium, to everyone’s advantage.
Notably, the author draws upon a fascinating variety of sources. His bibliography designates no less than five categories, which assemble critical and scholarly books that treat photographic portraiture, social science, and history from various perspectives. These categories make an interesting list in themselves: “Historical Backgrounds,” “Genres, Influences, and Phases,” “Self-Portraiture,” “Social Sciences,” and “Studies, Criticism and Surveys of Portrait Photography.” (p. 325-326)
The high production values of the publication itself attest to its serious intent. Profuse illustrations, including many color reproductions of prints that predate the era of color photography, are a welcome asset. So is the generous layout, in which images and text keep pace with each other.
The theme-title of Chapter 1 is Retrospection and Clairvoyance: Portraits of the Early Twentieth Century. Kozloff opens with a fascinating general discussion of technology at the turn of the century. The times situated things – and people – in a fitful equilibrium between old and new ways. In the author’s words, “The more rapidly society was able to produce and distribute its goods, the more it dislocated a general perception of time. In portraiture, this dislocation gave rise to the impression that people were living in different eras, even though they were all contemporaries.” (p. 70)
For example, early 20th century photographers began to document vanishing customs of local communities, whether they were disappearing in Britain, France, the US, or Peru. Kozloff characterizes examples of this type of group portraiture, by Sir Benjamin Stone in Britain and Frances Benjamin Johnston in the US, as “sculptural.” Their approach retains elements of 19th century rigidity, be it photographic or class-conscious. He then turns to Edward S. Curtis’s monumental oeuvre, The North American Indian. It too was conceived as a documentary project. Yet because it was realized in the lissome style of Internationalist Pictorialism, the sense of time is ambiguous. What constitutes “vanishing customs,” a “local community,” or even a “document” in Curtis’s project is never resolved. Kozloff highlights dynamic subtleties that are more apparent from a 21st century perspective.
In this chapter Kozloff also makes interesting connections between Agustín Víctor Casasola’s progressive news service and archive in Mexico, finely-limned portraits by Ernest Bellocq taken in New Orleans, and photographers with a reformist bent such as Lewis Hine. For Hine, industrialization did not bode well for the lives of people, particularly children. The deep empathy toward exploited workers that he portrayed in limpid gelatin silver photographs actually helped change the law. Meanwhile, Kozloff observes that the Pictorialist style was seductive to cultural celebrities of the day. They commissioned its expert practitioners (Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn) to burnish their reputations with smoke and mirrors, as it were. As the chapter comes to a close, Kozloff notes the rise of Freudian psychology during this era.
The amazing self-portraiture of transgender Jewish photographer Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) is featured in Chapter 2, Introversions of the Self: The Author in the Portrait 1900 – 1935. As a lead-in, Kozloff notes the advent of the photobooth in 1925. The antics of ordinary people, let loose before its anonymous lens, inspire him to warn, “Artistic self-portraiture is photobooth work raised to a new power, not so much to disavow the pictorial report as to misdirect it.” (p 77 – 79)
Futurists, Bauhaus-ians, Lotte Jacobi, André Kertész, Egon Schiele, and other artists who undertook photographic self-portraiture come under Kozloff’s scrutiny, and round out his discussion of its vagaries and infelicities. He seems mistrustful of artists in their multiple roles of performer, photographer, and author – or rather, “unreliable narrator.” Perhaps he feels that they leave nothing much for him, the critic, to do. At least he acknowledges their bravery near the end of the chapter with the comment, “Of the various psychological ingredients in general portraiture, anxiety sometimes has a share. In self-portraiture, by contrast, that emotion is often escalated into fear.” (p 99) The theme of fear and self-portraiture returns, much amplified, in the last chapter.
Kozloff is an incisive guide to the rise of the mass-produced “public image” during the gravest period of the 20th century. He demonstrates some of the mechanisms of propaganda in Chapter 3, Shades of Valour: Portraiture and the Making of History, 1930 -1945. Photo-illustrated magazines were designed in part to overcome language barriers. Cheap, widely distributed, and eagerly consumed, they helped populations struggling to achieve basic literacy acclimate themselves to modernity’s vast proportions and mechanization. When the worst news of World War II became public, magazines such as Life and even Vogue conveyed the horrors visually through photo-journalism.
While photographic media took on wide utilitarian scope and became a prominent feature of 20th century culture, fine art portraiture continued apace. In Chapter 4, The Sander Effect: Portraiture and the Exposure of the Masquerade, Kozloff is really at his best. The catalyzing element for this theme is August Sander’s encompassing project, People of the Twentieth Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts), initiated during the 1930s and posthumously completed in 2002. Kozloff contextualizes this project alongside the work of lesser-known portraitists such as Richard Samuel Roberts and Mike Disfarmer in the US, Jenny de Vasson in France, and acutely observes:
They belonged roughly to the same late-nineteenth century generation. As a matter of course, they took pictures with outdated equipment in conservative locales and were slow to adapt to the twentieth-century environment of fleeting manners and moods. These portrait photographers were in transit between two modes of seeing: the older one which they knew and a more spontaneous approach which they had not mastered… the irresolution lends their imagery… a remarkable pungency. (p 180)
Sander’s approach to portraiture cast a long shadow over 20th century portraits to come. Not only was it quasi-scientific, almost statistical – it was beautiful, mysterious. Irving Penn’s work reflects its influence, as Kozloff discusses in a commentary that no fan of Penn should miss. Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus are characterized as distant heirs to Sander’s portrait style, as well.
Taking group portraiture in yet another direction, the theme of Chapter 5 is Insiders and their Cultures: Portraits of Difference, 1970 – 2000. Once again, Kozloff excels at sketching a world backdrop. In brief, the Cold War reigned while alienation splintered communities in developing countries as well as industrialized ones, and photographers were witness to the ground level effects on people’s lives. Bill Owens’s observation of domestic suburban life compares well with similar studies by Martin Parr, in California and Britain respectively. Kozloff highlights the self-mocking undertones of celebrants in Neal Slavin’s portraits of eclectic social clubs in Britain, as well as Cristina García Rodero’s depictions of religious cults in Spain. His longer treatments of Graciela Iturbide and Sebastião Salgado explore themes of estrangement and exile, community and activism, often vividly portrayed as instances of personal resistance. These themes are also germane to Kozloff’s discussion of portraits by Josef Koudelka and notable lesser-known photographers. Mary Ellen Mark is thoughtfully characterized as a portrait photographer who “turns clichés into quandaries.” (p. 253)
Twentieth-century photographic portraits operated against the backdrop of modernism, a conditioning that was both anti-naturalistic and highly conceptual. (p. 10)
Themes of fear, creativity, and infelicity, which Kozloff explored in relation to artists’ self-portraiture in Chapter 2, are revived in the penultimate Chapter 6, From Celebrities to Nonentities: Portraiture, Beauty and Death, 1980 to the Present. Kozloff’s mood does not brighten in this era, one in which the portrait as well as the artist’s self-portrait attained five-alarm intensity. Balancing the enigma of personality against that of photography’s dark box had become a tricky business with high stakes by that point. Works by Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, Lucas Samaras, Tibor Kalman, Thomas Ruff, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and others are treated with appropriate urgency and dignity.
Yet Kozloff is not really on their side. Many of these artist’s portraits create multi-layered syntheses geared for a sophisticated audience fattened on visual culture. They are entertaining in a serious way, drawing upon avant-garde theater, icons of art history, cinema, and performance art simultaneously. Just as the theatrical motif seems to be peaking, Kozloff is unaccountably despairing. His tone becomes almost despondent as he contemplates composite portraiture by Nancy Burson and William Wegman later in the chapter.
The ambitious scope and human focus of The Theatre of the Face create a memorable journey through 20th century portraiture. As Kozloff observed in the Introduction:
The interior being or soul of Victorian citizens had been considered, in public at least, as a unified and indivisible consciousness, shaped by class, racial, and ethnic stereotypes… Our modern communication outlets have redefined the personal – and the private – as a kind of spectacle to which unsorted viewers expect access as a matter of course… p 8
As the 19th Century closed, a sea-change in human sensibility coincided with photography’s gradual rise and steady penetration of world culture. For an upcoming generation, photographic media, whether moving or still, creates a collective sense of who exists. Still, faces shine. Kozloff’s true subject in The Theatre of the Face is the energetic human soul – photography being a beacon of its tilts and whirls through time.