Sunday, January 31, 2016

eight line post

In early January each year I take stock of which photobooks came in over the holidays, what's still on my wanted list, and what's available. Then I put in an order for a handful of titles. I buy most sight unseen based on hearsay. Some prove worthwhile. Others don't. That's how I discovered Maude Schuyler Clay's wonderful new book Mississippi History. If I could go back and revise my best-of-2015 list, this one would be on it. Oh well, hindsight is always 20/20.

Clay is a wonderful portraitist with deep roots in genteel Mississippi. She's a friend of Bill, and shares his natural feel for the rural Southern color palette. I like to imagine one hand clutching a mint juleps as she steadies the camera with the other, although I have no idea what her process actually is. She likes to shoot on bright mornings when the warm sun pours slowly like molasses across her subjects. By all rights this light should be harsh, but somehow in Clay's photos it isn't.  

One of her go-to portrait moves is a disruption of the face, putting one eye in light and the other in darkness. Here are some examples:

It's a large book and my scanner won't fit the full pages, so I've cropped these photos to emphasize the face. I'm not sure what Clay's intention was, but for me the effect is psychological. If eyes are the windows to the soul, these subjects seem scattered, complex, divided against themselves. Maybe slightly mad.

Visually the effect is similar to Heterochromia Iridum, differential coloration of the iris. This trait is not as uncommon as you might think. It runs evenly throughout the general populace, celebrities included, although the prevalence in humans is much less than in cats and dogs

The day after the Maude Schuyler Clay book arrived David Bowie died. Bowie was a rare bird for all sorts of reasons, but near the top of the list for me were his eyes. I found them mesmerizing. Even if he had made boring music —which he didn't— with those eyes he would still be a star, at least in my book. 

Technically Bowie's syndrome wasn't Heterocrhomia but Anisocoria, differential dilation of the pupils. Like Heterochromia, this syndrome can be either genetic or caused by physical damage. In Bowie's case, he suffered an injury as a teen which caused permanent dilation in the left eye. While everyone around him could adjust their inner F-stop, Bowie viewed everything thereafter at f/1.4 —at least through one eye. 

What was it like to look out of that head? Perhaps his brain was forced into some strange organic HDR calculation, trying to combine bright and dim, depth and shallowness, focus and blur. Sound and Vision? Whatever it was, Bowie's face for me was the penultimate expression of cool, detached, offbeat, arty. He personified The Other. Just another wild eyed boy from freecloud.

Even before Bowie died, I sometimes wondered why his split iris look was not more fashionable. Colored contacts are widely accessible. Everyone worshipped Bowie, and anyone could be him. So why didn't heterochromia ever catch on in the pop world? Why aren't there more humans walking around with eyes like the white cat above? They should be everywhere. Instead they're as rare as asymmetrical cars or McNuggets. 

I suppose I could point the finger at myself as easily as others. The closest I ever got was mismatched socks, a habit that began in college —inspired by Bowie— and continues to this day, at least on winter days too cold for sandals.

In the aftermath of Bowie's death another asymmetrical face was in the news most days —the unwashed and slightly dazed visage of Ryan Bundy, as he embarked on a new career in a new town. Like Bowie, Bundy's facial asymmetry was due to a childhood injury. A car ran over his head at age seven. After his traffic stop last week he may have felt he was always crashing in that same car. 

Ryan Bundy, AP

Bundy's face is yet another gentle reminder that asymmetry, not uniformity, is the law of bodies. Whether it's nipples, genitals, ears, or what have you, differences between left and right are common. Thus, any portraitist searching for a perfectly symmetrical face will be disappointed. In photography the struggle for perfection is often a fool's errand, the exact wrong direction. That leaves photography wallowing in the muck with the other arts, and that's just fine. 

Maybe this is what Clay is getting at with her disruptive portraits. Or Martin Schoeller with his detailed facial closeups?

Steve Carell, Martin Schoeller

A sideways nose hasn't slowed the cracked actor career of Owen Wilson

Just as a sideways eye —Strabismus, to get technical again— didn't slow down Sartre.

John-Paul Sartre, 1946, Henri Cartier-Bresson

I've wrestled over the years with my own wandering eye. None of my vision is 20/20, not hindsight, foresight, nor insight. Sometimes the eye behaves. Sometimes it has a mind of its own. At the least opportune moment its gaze might fall on a beautiful body nearby. Or the texture of a nearby moss garden. Or the distant horizon. Anywhere it seems but the task at hand, which is to point where the other eye points. That's usually into a camera. 

Selfie, 2006

Note that I'm talking about my third eye, so even if it wanders I have two others which work ok. But it's still a problem. In fact I think a wandering third eye might be the worst type to have, since it's an important location for Chakras, Chi and other touchy-feely crap.

A wandering third eye is bad enough. But when it's accompanied —as in my case—by wandering brain, essay, and socks it's a wonder I can get any photography done. My attention is all over th...

I'm sorry, what was my left side writing about? Kooks? Shapes of things? My right side whispers, Hang onto yourself.  After all. It ain't easy. It's OK. If I'd wanted my posts to be perfect I'd have made them Bowie eyes. 

1 comment:

Cameron Getty said...

Had no idea Bowie's eyes were the way they were. Very interesting. Bowie must have had Leica glass vision.