There is a Light
There is something deeply haunting in the confrontational assault on the viewer enacted in each of the three photographs that I have chosen for this essay. It will be obvious to those who look in turn at each image that there is only one place to which our gaze is drawn: the depthless well of the eye. With these portraits, the photographer breaks the barrier separating model and viewer, with the eyes acting as a conduit for that transgression. What I wish to explore is our emotional response to each of these pictures and breakdown the various elements that contribute towards such arresting images. It is clear that there is overlap between each of these pictures, most prominently between the Twiggy and Moss photographs; however, each one has a subtly different emotion wrapped within.
Taking as our starting point the Natalie Portman, which was featured in the 2005 Vogue Germany, we are confronted initially by the partiality of the face presented. The shoulder in the foreground has been pulled across the frame of the photograph as she twists away from the reader. It is because her jaw is now at a forty-five degree angle to the flat of her shoulder that we see the muscles in her neck tensing; this in turn generates a remarkable sense of vulnerability. The jaw line, as it falls from the ear to the chin, is in perfect mirror to the curvature of her shoulder, as it arcs from her upper back into the arm. This leaves that neck even more exposed in the center of the image. The image may thus be divided into three, slightly unequal, thirds, with the neck in the middle providing the only relief from the grey background. At the same time, the image divides in half; the top half dominated by the chiaroscuro of the black hat, in stark contrast to the white of the bottom half. The effect of this tripartite and bipartite division of the image, which occurs simultaneously, is unsettling. This is precisely the mood of the picture; one which is only heightened by the single piercing eye situated exactly half way across the photo. Indeed, we might so far as to suggest that the eye rests at the point of crucifixion, the point at which the cross-beam of Western Christianity meets the vertical post. And yet, the image is so subtly crafted that we hardly notice the inner workings. This is Caravaggio in the twenty-first century – beauty wrought from light and dark.
The second, taken by Barry Lategan in 1966, image is defined by its symmetry. Indeed, it is only on account of the side parting of the hair that this picture does not descend into the ridiculous. As with the Portman image, it is the eyes which draw us in; Twiggy’s are both huge – emphasised by the eye-makeup – and melancholic. This latter effect is certainly achieved in large part by the mascara which visually pulls the corner of the eyes downwards. If we look closely, we can see the eyes sink just as the corners of the mouth sink likewise. In combining the eyes and lips in this way, there is a sense of hollowness; we gaze deep into the eyes and find no warmth contained within. Looking again at the Portman photograph we can clearly see the difference; the corner of the eye is raised and the lips stay flat. Strangely, it is the choice of jumper that makes this image; the Christmas stars form a negative to the eyes to the model. Each one is splayed out like an eyes, framing the simple elegance of the face with a startling complexity.
The final image is of Kate Moss, taken by Peter Lingberg in 1994 and in no small way a homage to Richard Avedon’s In The American West series (1985). Here the image is far less elegant than the previous two; there is a roughness in tone set, perhaps, by the wooden backdrop, the denim dungarees, and the androgynous, slicked back hair. This image, like the Portman, seems vulnerable, the lowered strap on her left shoulder exposing that side of the neck. And yet, her vulnerability is coupled with a hidden strength. The jaw is more wide set, the forehead, more imposing; this is not a weak woman, albeit a vulnerable one. The eyes connect with us as a determined plea, not for pity but, perhaps, for respect. Where the previous two photographs display a refined poise, this image feels raw in its intensity.
W. J. Humphries