“Appearances contain more messages than we ever allow them to tell us — except perhaps when we are in love”
— John Berger Where Are We? in Between The Eyes
Ute and Werner Mahler’s debut photobook Monalisen der Vorstädte (‘Mona Lisas of the Suburbs’) collects together in twenty-nine portraits and twelve landscapes made in five countries an image of young, absolutely contemporary European women in a milieu that is likely to be a defining emblem of the 21st century, and at a fugitive point where they are recognisably, temporarily on the cusp of adulthood. The work draws together some of the defining debates and developments both socially, and within the confines of art and photographic history without neglecting at any point to assert with each individual image that appearances, independent of any theoretical faction or sociological animus, are and will forever be enigmatic sources of great fascination. The portraits are each made with an unabashedly tender generosity, and rendered in such measured and unfussy clarity that we are thoroughly engaged by each subject, and reminded that there can be deep pleasure in looking steadily at that which ultimately remains so utterly inscrutable.
The Mona Lisas book depicts a specifically contemporary moment by its willingness to include the particular trappings of current fashions as they are worn by its subjects, and in so doing it also depicts a broad swathe of contemporary femininity – a broader spectrum than we are given to consume in those trans-national aspects of the culture that draws each of these young European women together. More than this, however, the book sets these factors to work in a specific and deliberately vague suburban milieu. Suburbs that now seem so pervasive to us as to be unworthy of comment became a normative element of our living separately together only in the past sixty years, and their lingering presence throughout these photographs parallels the ubiquity of the signal cultural development of recent history: globalisation.
This is not to suggest that the Mona Lisas is a deeply political body of work, at least in as much as concerns economics, since that critique – to the extent that it is supported by the pictures – is more implied than it is clearly stated. Rather, what is intriguing is the manner in which the Mona Lisas pictures find substantive resonance between the commonality that these young women visibly share with each other, and the societal and economic forces that make that commonality possible. One of the most striking effects of the photographs is the extent to which they encourage us to imagine them to have been made in any of the five countries in which the photographers worked; equally striking is the great difficulty we have at determining the nationality of so many of the subjects.
One could legitimately wonder how one might find complementarity in a group of portraits made in Italy, Germany, Iceland, England and Poland, working across so broad and irregular a range of cultures, economies and histories. In the event, the diversity of languages, locales and even of the individual subjects only serves to reinforce a reciprocal sense that they are also part of a very real community at this particular moment in time. The photographs address themselves to a transitional phase of youth and young adulthood common to each of these women, and do so in an environment that feels essentially continuous. At one and the same time the photographs impart to each individual a kind of unity that approaches solidarity, at least in the sense of concurrence. This could merely be a rhetorical ploy of the pictures themselves – an effect of their repetitive form. However, portraiture engages us in an imaginative act that never presupposes the inevitability of our own generosity to one another, but merely reminds us (often with persuasive sensitivity) of our essentially social nature. The Mona Lisas photographs arrange their subjects in a configuration that depends for its cogency on real underlying conditions, and that is premised on real commonalities between communities, cities, nations and cultures, but they also depend upon our willingness to recall ties to each other that predate and supersede locally distinguishing factors… They also depend on our humanity.
Portraiture, Celebrity and Identity.
The issue of our contemporary image of, and contemporary imagery of women is of equal significance to context of the Mona Lisas work. The book, although produced in an edition of 500 copies, nevertheless sits within the broader context of contemporary visual culture, and is affected by those other currents as much in the circumstances of its making (how Ute and Werner might have been received by the young women they sought to make pictures of in public) as in its continued distribution (extended portraiture studies of young women in contemporary fine art photography are rare). Portraiture has had a long and often inimical struggle with its depictions of women, and of femininity. Up until a period so recent in the long history of images as to effectively be contemporary, men presumed without hesitation their right to arbitrate on the question of who was worthy of representation, in what manner, and to what end. The cumulative effect of those presumptions persists to this day, and inarguably continues to influence the models of beauty we see depicted and celebrated around us, just as those effects extend also to images directed at precisely the kinds of young women that we see in these photographs.
It has become axiomatic of our time to claim that people more than ever desire fame, regardless, or often in spite of achievement. The corollary assertion that more than ever people desperately aspire simply to be seen follows from the first, and seems true of so many societies. Photography had a hand in this. Its ascent on the covers of international news magazines paralleled the democratisation of access to photographic tools, awakened an insatiable hunger, and broadened the acceptable range of individuals worthy of tremendous public attention. Truisms about a proliferation of media and of avenues to celebrity should encompass photography’s role in those developments. It seems straightforward, in this context, to imagine why people flock toward the light if offered some slender fragment of attention, some parenthetical experience of fame. Imagining, given all of this, why people continue to offer themselves up as subjects for photographic portraiture is far harder, and much less straightforward.
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a portrait of worldwide fame — the most famous work of art in the history of the world perhaps. Yet it is a portrait of a woman about whom, until some very few years ago, we knew nothing. For the overwhelming majority of the period of her fame as a work of art, we have not known to any certainty even who the woman depicted in the portrait was. This seems so at odds with contemporary culture, and could be understood as something of an ironic gesture given the title of this book of photographs. However without any knowledge of the biography of the woman whose face is the central attraction, the raison d’être for the painting, the image of the Mona Lisa alone has been a source of reverie and an object of fascination for centuries. As Ute and Werner drove around the nondescript hinterlands of five very different European cities, this notion was likely never far from their minds: a face, rendered with sensitivity and skill, with an attentiveness to its particular beauties and enigmas, is in itself sufficient pretext for some kind of revelation.
“Our frenzied engagement with photographic imagery has brought a more sophisticated understanding of its limits. We are invited into the material lives of others, but at the same time the access does not seem to increase any sense that we know them better. Broad though it is in social reach, the medium famously withholds confirmation of any verity beyond the momentary reach of its physical descriptions. What truth can be conveyed by records of sensitive faces when we know them to have originated only through the tiniest blip of light, abruptly isolated in past time?
Hindered by the plainly insufficient evidence offered by the single, still moment of the portrait photograph, we viewers can have little confidence in our answer to this question. But it is given weight by the story atmosphere generated by the people involved in the act of photographing. Though we are not participants in that particular context, we are given some measure of its arrangements settled or unsettled in the portrait contract.”
“The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity. Photographs, it is said, tell the truth. From this simplification, which reduces the truth to the instantaneous, it follows that what a photograph tells about a door or a volcano belongs to the same order of truth as what it tells about a man weeping or a woman’s body.”
Portraiture, past and present.
In the Mahler’s portraits we see not a charade but a testing, an experimentation, an accommodation with identity as a discrete, formally feminine concept. This is given to us in the way that each subject relates their own appearance to their sense of a portrait made over five centuries prior. Each subject has been invited to sit down, and to contend with the most iconic image of a woman in the lexicon of the visual arts. The Mahlers have reformulated the rubric of the classical studio portrait from the late 19th and early 20th century, taking their subjects out of the parlour and onto the street. In their portraits they encourage or inspire an engagement from their sitters with the concept of themselves formally as young women, unadorned by traditional props, gadgetry or much of the regalia with which they might otherwise expect to parse outward evidence of their own identities.
They are, as we find them, in dialogue between our own contemporaneity and that of an unknowable past some five hundred years distant, in which someone else, someone equally unknown to them as these young women are to us, posed in the production of a comparable image. They are caught in an image that imagines that dialogue between what was in its time a progressive, contemporary depiction of a young, relatively inconsequential young woman, and our modern day equivalents. In their varied individual responses to this challenge and to that history these Mona Lisas collectively assert a modern, radically expanded and compelling plurality of forms of beauty — a plurality that is heartening in its ordinariness, and its relatively unvarnished presentation, but one that echoes a long genealogy of beauty in the history of portraiture, and thus connects these women with the many whose images have gone before them.
The Mona Lisas portraits overtly refer themselves not only to Da Vinci’s painting, but to late 19th century portraiture by the likes of Matthew Brady, as well as to the early 20th century work of August Sander and Paul Strand. While Brady’s most famous work was conducted in studio settings, it possessed the same austerity that gives these portraits an unusual tension between the formal arrangement of their subjects, and the apparently informal and ostensibly unremarkable settings in which we find them. In Brady’s instance the limitations of his photographic tools demanded a certain stoicism from his images; in the case of Sander and subsequently of Strand a rapid increase in the speed of emulsions and photographic paper made it possible to work with greater volumes of uncontrollable exterior light, and thus to introduce the real world into the portrait frame. What is so noteworthy about the Mahler’s portraits is the extent to which they forego any outward evidence on which to base our sense of the lives of their subjects. While retaining a great deal of the visual grammar of classical portraiture from a hundred or more years ago, these images forego the inclusion of anything that might – in keeping with classical traditions – give us an indication of the status or the prospects of each subject.
In the absence of that ‘information’ we are left principally with two things: the continuous scroll of the suburban backdrop, and the particular appearance and gaze of each individual. We see relatively little formal dress, varying amounts of makeup, a preference for smart-casual wear in keeping with a relatively temperate season. We see an attitude toward outward appearance that is generally relaxed and not ornate, regardless of the occasionally elaborate use of jewellery on or around the face. Since we are given little if anything on which to hang our sense of the likely trajectory that each young woman’s life might take, the photographers forces us and our attentions in on the sheer visible fact of the subjects themselves, and in the levelness of their gaze, in the frank and simple manner in which they have arranged themselves and been arranged, in the inscrutably even and limpid manner in which they confront the lens they are endlessly fascinating, unique and magnetic. As Robert Adams wrote about Paul Strand, “we continue to speculate, as we do with all great art, because the picture is clearer than life and in this consoling.”
“What has finally determined his success in his photographs of people and in his landscapes — which are only extensions of people who happen to be invisible — is his ability to invite the narrative: to present himself to his subject in such a way that the subject is willing to say: I am as you see me.
This is more complicated than it may seem. The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present; but nevertheless, with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from the pronoun. I am includes all that has made me so.“
Portraiture, Sander and Social Change.
Ute and Werner invoke the long history of portraiture both before and after the arrival of photography, I would argue, in order to put that history in the service of a question about change. Portraiture at any moment describes what is sayable for a particular culture, and the portraiture that survives and finds its place in public consciousness records what has been considered worthy of recollection, or of note. We can find in this particular contemporary refashioning of that history correspondences and disjunctures that speak to where we have seen great change, and also to areas where that change is still forthcoming. What distinguishes these young women most obviously from their eponymous forebear the Mona Lisa, but also from the classical portraiture to which these images formally refer, is their appearance, and the vast social changes that have taken place in order for them to now look as they do. But the apparent disjuncture between the world of the Mahler’s subjects and the one to which the pictures allude is not necessarily conclusive, or settled.
In some of its earliest phases, portraiture served to publicly legitimate institutions (royal, religious, aristocratic), and then install those deserving of recognition into the pantheon of the Good and the Great:
“The function of portrait painting was to underwrite and idealise a chosen social role of the sitter. It was not to present him as ‘an individual’ but, rather, as an individual monarch, bishop, landowner, merchant and so on. Each role had its accepted qualities and its acceptable limit of discrepancy. (A monarch or a pope could be far more idiosyncratic than a mere gentleman or courtier.) The role was emphasised by pose, gesture, clothes and background. (…) The satisfaction of having one’s portrait painted was the satisfaction of being personally recognised and confirmed in one’s position: it had nothing to do with the modern lonely desire to be recognised ‘for what one really is’.“
As photography assumed more of the functions of the painted portrait, and as its faster and more affordable economies of scale made access to portraiture more democratic, it nevertheless continued to serve as a means of policing what was to be legitimated as acceptable, and it participated in the discovery of new knowledge. The daguerrotypes made in the 1850s by JT Zealy, of male and female African slaves stripped naked and rendered in ‘neutral’ portrait form belong also to the vernacular of new objectivity that gave the photographic portrait its pride of place, and its capacity to exercise some authority within the social sphere. Ironically the ostensibly objective, typological structuring of the photographic portrait that reached its apogee in the work of Sander belonged also to the moment of the Industrial Revolution, and a burgeoning faith in the promise that mechanisation and standardisation could simplify the future, tame the unruly instincts and improve the coming modern world.
Photography was and has always been as willing and effective a tool in the hands of fascism or sexism or racism as ever it was progress, or something as noble as freedom. The putatively criminological studies of the homeless, of gypsies, jews and blacks made in the early twentieth-century took to its logical and extreme conclusion the view that a person’s mere appearance was sufficient to uncover their true nature, predict their behaviour and thus their future. We may scoff at the recidivism of a time when women such as those depicted by Ute and Werner would have appeared heretical or absurd, but photography’s principal function even today is the production of desire for a beauty that has no blemish, no eccentricity, is attended always and everywhere by outward indices of success, of affection, of love that brooks no complication.
It may be that the chief irony, at least superficially, of seeing so classical a form or portraiture practiced on so contemporary a group of young women is the air of absurdity that it imputes on old social orders that were still in force when Sander was beginning his lifelong project. That sense of irony and absurdity is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that in a way the force that ultimately made his systematic typology unsustainable was the rapidly internationalising spread of capital that morphed into globalisation, and that now makes two women in two suburbs separated by thousands of miles seem ostensibly interchangeable. Globalisation did for the fixities on which his taxonomy depended. However that ironic gesture can be doubled back on our own present-day sophistications. Nearly a century later, photography as it is most commonly used continues to preclude diversity and to celebrate a uniformity of the lowest common denominator; women’s bodies and women’s rights are still disproportionately vulnerable, and their economic prospects still a fraction of those of their male counterparts.
The question of parity, in other words, is as unfinished as the place in which we see these young women depicted, and it seems in no way accidental that the term Vorstädte, literally translated, can be understood as unfinished.
Portraiture, Recognition and Transcendence.
The very pretext for the making of a portrait invites questions the answer to which no picture can conclusively resolve, except to say that those things that we see from that surface at that time were also somehow in there, were part of the shifting index of possibilities from which an I, any I, the photographed I was made and continues to be made over by the passage of time. The hesitance, the circumspection, the temerity and the hopefulness also – all of those things were part of the dynamic, volatile, changeable compound that constitutes the I that affirms, as Berger writes, I am as you see me. We cannot assume the appearance of an emotion or disposition we are incapable of expressing, whether we tend toward an image of ourselves that is at odds with that appearance or in keeping with it.
In the formulation of the Mahler’s portraits we are given images that appear repetitive in their aspect, and that perhaps induce in us a sense of something taxonomical, but they are in fact carefully calibrated and deeply individuated portraits. They strip colour from the scene to better illustrate the particular contours of individual bodies and faces. They strip clarity from the backdrop to ensure that notions of citizenship and nationality take a subsidiary role to our primary humane response. They give their subjects weight within the frame, composing always in such a way that everything leads us into their gaze. They give them time and space before and during the moment the image is created, so that each of them is afforded the opportunity to engage us with the question of what we see and what we seek in looking, even as they ask a similar question of themselves.
There is something so deeply recognisable and so deeply contemporary in the ambit of faces described in the Mona Lisas book. They describe a contemporaneity that admits of its long historical influences, that embraces its progenitors, but that is not beholden to them, whatever the strictures of our present-day patriarchy. There is in this plausibly anywhere milieu a description of a reality that is all the more clear for being left out of focus, disconnected, unrelated to the specificities of any particular city or street. The portraits and the landscapes together suggest that there are some specific realities in which, increasingly, we all share – not so much as to make our own particular geographies and histories irrelevant, but just enough to give us a sense of our concurrence, and of the pervasiveness off certain cultural commonalities. The image they depict is clearer than life, as Adams says, and in this it is both mysterious and consoling – we may only come to understand the clarity of this depiction with the passage of time.
“The one who looks is essential to the meaning found, and yet can be surpassed by it. And this surpassing is what is hoped for. Revelation was a visual category before it was a religious one. The hope of revelation – and this is particularly obvious in every childhood – is the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a precise functional aim.”
Ariella Azoulay argues in her book The Civil Contract of Photography that the photographic encounter postulates something for us to see that predates, and supersedes our particular linguistic, religious and national ties, something that first draws us together as civilians, as members of a group undivided by the visceral realities of political and economic differences. This thing that is postulated solves nothing, obviates nothing, rectifies no one single wrong or injustice as it is suffered at the expense of any other member of this imagined community. But the very fact that something emerges in an encounter with photography that precedes our linguistic, religious or political affiliations is itself also in some sense the means of resolving the complexities they can produce. For Azoulay, we as users of photography possess the capability, simply in the act of looking at photography, to “suspend the gesture of sovereign power,” and in so doing escape the strictures of factional differences and entrenched prejudice. Photography, thus conceived, can serve as a meeting point, a place for our common re-imaginings.
“There is a passage from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, where he writes that he would like to make portraits that to people a century later would look like ghosts. It seems to describe that distracted and terrible looking out that occurs occasionally in photographs. Barthes describes a similar look as being terrible because it is the return of the dead. I do not see it in such a way; in my response there is a sense of pity, perhaps a sense of loss and sheer longing, but each time it is resistance to death that lies in the recognition of another. This seems a sad litany of defeat, of failure and loss. It should not be, because in our resistance we find solidarity with others. The feeling of recognition, if only momentarily…”
— Craigie Horsfield, from Cambridge Darkroom (1988), in Conversation [italics added]
That which we understand, but which continues to surpass our understanding is the perpetual subject of all Art, and the preserve of beauty in all its forms. We who do the looking are essential to that understanding, but as Berger says, hope to be surpassed by it. An experience of the ineffable, as and when we encounter it is so much greater than the language life offers us in order to approximate it, but its basic unit is ‘the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a precise functional aim’ – the mere inclination, in other words, to look at one’s children perhaps, or the shifting reflections on the surface of a lake, or wherever our mind is drawn out beyond the precincts of what is useful toward what simply is.
The etymology of the word recognise consists of the Latin words re, for again, and cognoscere, for to know. At the root of the idea of recognition is a belief that apprehension entails a reacquisition of some knowledge that was already ours to begin with. Photography, and more specifically portrait photography, can connect us to one another in spite of the particular prejudices and conventions of our own culture – it can remind us of our innate capacity to recognise our humanity in each other. Perhaps this is a function of our essentially social nature: we are born as creatures not of individual but mutual necessity, and our capacity, our need to communicate underscores the pivotal importance of that fact. If Berger is correct, and appearances do ‘contain more messages than we ever allow them to tell us — except perhaps when we are in love’, then vision can give to us truths too all-encompassing, too fundamental to be accommodated by the narrow uses of fact, but truths that are essential and essentially binding all the same. A portraitist’s insistence on seeing clearly, and on depicting that particular clarity for themselves and others could be — is, in my view — analogous to a kind of love, one that returns to us what was always already given to us as our own, in the lucid moment of recognition.