That Face! The Uncanny Art Of Studio Photography’s Heyday
October 18, 2012
No product of human industry is infinite, but photography comes close. In 1976, John Szarkowski, the longtime curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, announced, somewhat gnomically, that “the world now contains more photographs than bricks.” As a metaphor of plenitude, Szarkowski’s phrase is wonderfully material, suggesting that photographs are just another object in the world, at once essential and interchangeable. As an estimate of quantity though, it now seems impossibly low. If digital photographs count (as by now they must), then the real figure must be several orders of magnitude larger, closer to the number of stars in the galaxy or neurons in the brain. And if I had to guess, I would expect that the majority of these photographs are of faces.
For a long time, photo portraits were restricted to a few places: in wallets, on ID cards and passports, in police files and high school yearbooks, on walls and desktops, on tombstones and wanted posters. Now they’re everywhere: on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr dashboards, they follow us around in a constantly updating cloud. Photography has become a means of autobiography and a broadcast art. It’s a way of keeping track what we wore last year and telling the world what we did last night. But as portraiture has become ubiquitous, it hasn’t gained in power. The ability to pierce or possess the viewer is still given to only a few images out of the billions.
Before Facebook, there was the photo studio: a room, a camera, and a photographer. Once upon a time, studio portraiture was an essential part of the visual vernacular. Like most vernaculars, studio photography was at once ubiquitous and invisible. Along with mug shots, crime scene photographs, aerial surveys and family snapshots, it belonged to the teeming undergrowth of photography, the network of practices and forms that sometimes predate and often anticipate its emergence as a recognized art form. In the hands of its greatest practitioners, it’s without question an art in its own right. But great portraits can also be the result of bureaucratic procedure, automatic gesture, or blind luck.
Studio photography is always at risk of seeming banal, and indeed, most of the photographs produced in portraiture’s heyday seem today either rote or bland. But a few of these photographers made work that remains indelible, and one of these was Hashem El Madani. For fifty years, beginning in 1949, Madani worked as a photographer in Sidon, a city in southern Lebanon. He began as an apprentice for a Jewish photographer in Haifa. After the events of 1948, he moved to Lebanon. At first he took pictures of his friends and family members. A few years later, he opened his own studio, called the Studio Scheherazade, above a cinema of the same name. With time, he became Sidon’s leading photographer. By his own estimate he photographed ninety percent of the people in town, amassing an archive of some five hundred thousand images.
Madani was a craftsman, providing a vital service for the people of his adopted city, taking photographs for ID cards, passports, weddings and christenings. But he was also an artist of rare power. His portraits preserve their subjects’ individuality. Unlike the work of artists like Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus, these photos don’t attempt to unmask or expose their subjects. Madani’s work is intimate without being intrusive. His photographs are often masterful, but they can also be rote or workmanlike, and their full impact only becomes clear when they are viewed in aggregate.
What Madani’s archive amounts to is an entire city, in faces. History moves through these photographs like a breeze through an open window. Fashions slowly change. The Ba’ath Party sets up shop on the floor above, and politicians come in for their campaign portraits. Palestinian militants stop by. Some look like soldiers, and others look like anxious kids. American oil executives come nodding in for a brief appearance, before ducking back out. When the civil war starts, two agents from Syrian Intelligence find time to stand for a hand-colored portrait. In it, they carry the same expression of contentment and self-assurance found in August Sander’s portraits of Weimar-era bankers and bakers.
Madani preferred to pose his subjects in front of a light-colored sheet or gray wall. Sometimes, when he was working outside Sidon, he would use a backdrop of weathered wooden planks. In either case, the space of the photographs is constricted, private. Privacy was central to Madani’s business. The studio above the Cinema Scheherazade was a space apart, a place where people were freer than in the rest of their lives, if only incrementally. Madani photographed this freedom. The people in Madani’s pictures perform versions of themselves, exaggerated takes on their everyday selves. They pose with transistor radios and cardboard cut-outs of women from American advertisements. They dress up as cowboys and Bedouins, put on sunglasses and strip to show off their muscles. They wear keffiyehs, bell bottoms, and pork pie hats. Sometimes they bring guitars; much, much, more often, they bring guns. They flash the peace sign, play with bridal veils, and look sad that Nasser died. The militants do their best to look fierce; civilians play cops and robbers. Often, they kiss, but only members of the same gender: The women kiss women and the men kiss men.
Sometimes, the freedom of the studio could be dangerous.Take the photograph below of Baqari’s wife (we do not know her name; he himself was a member of a prominent family in Madani’s part of Sidon). She must have snuck into Madani’s studio when her husband was away. According to Madani’s account, her husband, a jealous man, didn’t let her out of the house alone; he couldn’t stand for other people to look at her. She had two portraits taken. The first was a Bedouin fantasia: she wears a black abaya and a jeweled headdress and balances an amphora on her shoulder, which lets her show off the jewelry on her wrists. In the second one, she is a modern woman: her head is uncovered, and she wears a white blouse and black skirt. You can tell from the portraits that she wasn’t used to being looked at. She doesn’t confront the camera. Madani would tell his customers that he always focused his lens right into the eyes, right on the pupil. Did she shy away from this? She wasn’t sure where to put her hand. Madani must have told her to keep one arm akimbo, to show off her shoulders. Her expression is unreadable: it might be defiance, and it might be resignation…