Every pore, every line, every stray hair: the horror of the all-seeing daguerreotype has me frozen in its thrall. Its unforgiving honesty has been chosen with express intent by Chuck Close, best known for his photo-realist paintings, to reveal something about his sitters. Yet the something proves elusive. In revealing everything, nothing is revealed. Faced, then, with nothing, I am forced to compare these faces with a face I know well: my own. I must suddenly confront an uncomfortable truth that begins with the thought that I do not enjoy looking at human skin as it ages and ends with the realisation that it is truly my own skin that I cannot bear to see disintegrating as I peer through the looking glass.
In A Couple of Ways of Doing Something – a large-format book of Chuck Close’s portraits printed from daguerreotypes paired with Bob Holman’s personalised praise poems – a variety of sitters, mostly familiar to Close, such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, have allowed themselves to be exposed. Because the daguerreotype process captures a “backwards” image, as Close explains in the interview at the close of the book, the only person with whom the resulting image can resonate is the sitter themselves: it’s what they see in the mirror. And, although Close implies that your face tells the story of your life, to me these strangers’ faces say nothing. I see only the superficial. Yet they succeed in stirring a debate, but it’s a circular interior monologue, not the dialogic interaction I hoped for.
The poems by Bob Holman that accompany each portrait follow the tradition of the African Praise Poem. Typographically experimental, these poems sit prettily on the page but in infusing them with the subject’s own speech, the overall effect is a cacophony of words. It’s far from terrible, but rather it is like that especially discordant jazz that polite people call “an acquired taste”. It is as though the poet has tried too hard to get into the head of these people and, further, it is possible he knows some of them too well to mine them for the secrets we might care to share.
As a collaborative venture, uniting my two favourite media – photography and poetry – I really want to like it. But, like the daguerreotype, I can only offer honesty: it leaves me cold.