Face to Face
Jon Lewis Coventry Gallery September 20-24, 1988
Back in 1883 the British eugenicist Sir Francis Galton published Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development in which he described his method of ‘composite portraiture’.1 In order to determine the essential physiognomical characteristics of any given social class, racial strain or behavioural type, Galton had devised a fiendish photographic method exactly analogous to statistical distribution analysis.
First he collected individual portraits of members of a designated character type. From a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers he obtained portraits of ‘the vigorous’, from the Director of Prisons he obtained portraits of ‘the villainous’ (which he subdivided into murderers and thieves), and from Guys Hospital he obtained portraits of ‘the diseased’ (sufferers of tuberculosis). All the portraits of each character type were copied onto a single photographic plate. Those features held most in common built up density to become more distinct than the individually variant physical characteristics. Thus the overall impression of the composite would represent the innate norm around which the individual samples deviated. It would be a generic portrait — the physiognomical index of the qualities of each character type.
Composite portraiture was only part of Galton’s detailed anthropometric investigations which were undertaken to aid natural evolution by enabling the British race to breed deviance and degeneracy out of itself.
On a pleasant Saturday afternoon I stood in a pleasant Paddington art gallery looking at a fascinating exhibition by one of Sydney’s nicest photographers. Why couldn’t I get the cold gothic horror of Galton out of my mind?
Surely the comparison was perverse and gratuitous. Jon Lewis’ 200 portraits, although all photographed at the same proximity and under the same lighting conditions as required by Galton’s composite portraiture, celebrate diversity, not some ideal racial norm.
But then Lewis did see his work, in some sense, as a ‘national portrait’. He told The Australian:
I was able to say it’s time to have a really hard look at ourselves … and start thinking ‘what are we all about? what are we really celebrating’. I don’t think the Bicentennial has produced any-real tough works of art, someone really saying something.2
Even if this ‘ourselves’ had both its geographical and cultural epicentre at Bondi Junction, the highly potent figure of ‘200’ portraits, repeated in all the press publicity, implied national coverage by way of Bicentennial metonymy and sheer magnitude.
The edge to edge, wall to wall, floor to ceiling hang of the tightly framed faces, divided into alphabetical sections for ease of reference to the accompaying checklist of names, suggested the logic and structure of a photographic archive and catalogue. This, and the obviously considered punctuation of the unrelenting rows and columns with the faces of the young, the old, the famous, the aboriginal and the ‘multicultural’, urged us to invest a certain, almost scientific comprehensiveness in the project.
What is this Bicentennial ‘we’ about? Face to face with this tough question the press was in remarkable consensus, The Sydney Morning Herald was “moved by the sudden intimacy these photographs permit” by which “controversial people become more human … it is … a rich experience of people — the famous, the infamous and the unknown.”3 For The Australian “it is a measure of the man’s humanity that he extracts such distilled, accurate moments from his subjects, coupled with an intimacy that is sometimes extremely moving.”4 On the Street quotes Lewis himself: “There is a precise moment following some deep breathing when a person first opens their eyes that they display a state of peaceful ‘nothingness’ which for me reveals something which is quite innate.”5
Despite its diagnostic failure it was the persistent invocation of innate humanity which perversely recalled Galton: Face to Face seemed to allow intimate access to Australia’s humanity, just as Galton’s method provided statistical knowledge of the generic characteristics of a range of human types. Both photographers presuppose a faith in the face as the index of a pre-existent nature, brought to light by the act of deep breathing and the method of generic composites.
Yet while Galton’s eugenic agenda is hierarchical and instrumental, in Lewis’ phrenological democracy every face has the same value — ‘humanity’ — and offers the same reading — ‘intimacy’. The immediate diversity of this Bicentennial ‘we’ is atomized, consensual, normatively distributed by the mute logic of warm, human egalitarianism.
Galton’s experiments, forerunners of more sophisticated developments in juridical realism and the regulatory sciences, cast an odd light on Face to Face.6 But Lewis’ investigation borrows from the empiricist surveillance and control strategies of science and government only to affirm a democracy of personal intimacy.
In the end all that Lewis’ extravagant survey presents us with is the same familiar thrill photography has always offered — corporeal presence. Nothing to be afraid of at all, really.
- Sir Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, Macmillan and Co.. New York 1883.
- Robert Macfarlane, “A journey into the human face,” The Weekend Australian, September 10-11 1988.
- Christine Godden, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 16, 1988.
- Robert Macfarlane, Op cit.
- “Face to Face”, On the Street, September 7, 1988.
- Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive.” October 39, MIT Press, Winter 1986.