Through the Looking-Glass
‘How these shadows last and how their originals fade away.’ These haunting words of Oliver Wendell Holmes describe the process of remembering enacted by the camera, capturing the world as a momentary truth, the simulacra lasting where the reality fades. Since Ancient Greece, art has often been compared to a reflection within the glass; the Platonic shades of our perception, in the words of Plato, merely ‘that of turning a mirror round and round’. However, it is Holmes himself who captures the very essence of this new artistic medium: ‘The camera is a mirror with a memory’. With the memory of these words, we approach contemporary photography, noticing an insistence on the inclusion of mirrors, allowing us to look through, to look within.
Resting as a passive object, it is how we and the models themselves react to the presence of the mirror that generates the interesting outcomes of these photographs. The first photograph in this group is taken from a series by Richard Avedon, completed at the end of his career in fashion. Entitled In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort, the photographs are an assault on a perceived complacency in fashion. A world of decay is inhabited by a female model and her skeletal companion. The boundary between life and death is transgressed as both skeleton and model engage in increasingly sexual acts, the French petit mort never finding a more appropriate pictorial representation. However, it is this photograph, out of the dozens in the series, that captures the entire essence of Avedon’s project. Gazing into the mirror, the model, and by extension the viewer, is confronted by a dual existence; she is caught in a moment of flux, a composite of two realities. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes a photograph of Lewis Payne, executed in the United States over the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, by suggesting that ‘he is dead and he is going to die’. The photograph itself is of a man, now dead, captured in a moment before death; his transition is yet complete. Avedon highlights this dilemma in his own photograph, extending life out to the point of death, allowing both to coexist within and behind the mirror.
The second photograph, taken by Helmut Newton in 1975, is a truly fascinating image. The full extent of the mirror only becomes apparent upon close inspection, but within it is caught not only the model but also the photographer and the seductive legs of an anonymous female. Indeed, upon first viewing, we assume the white space to be the extent of the mirror’s framing but this is not the case; the floorboards fuse into the flat surface of the mirror, extending back as if to grant unrealized space. However, what elevates this photograph beyond anything similar is the inclusion of Jane Newton to the right of the mirror. When looking carefully, we can see that her chair is not in front of the mirror, but slightly behind it. It is owing to the limited width of the mirror that she is visible and not completely obscured by the glass; her own spectacles acting as an, albeit contingent, reminder of this fact. As we, the viewer, take on the role of the photographer – both observing and observed in the mirror – Jane acts as a further extension of this observation.
The final photograph, taken by Louis Dahl-Wolfe, combines two antagonistic concepts within the beautiful simplicity of the image itself. On the one hand, we voyeuristically observe this moment of pure abandon, in which the model appears unconcerned by the world around – a rejection of self-awareness and the pressures of the panopticon of constant observation. However, as the back is turned upon viewer, and so too the world, this abandon is tempered by the self-conscious actions of the model as she reaches into the glass, pressing up her hand against her reflected counterpart. The light is entirely emanating from off-frame, to the right of the model and mirror; the effect of this is a strange luminosity, as if the mirror was not only reflecting light but also generating it. She is absorbed by her own image; we are invited merely to catch the reflected rays that fall from the glass.
W. J. Humphries