I suppose I’m a bit of a fetishist. Perhaps we all are.
I am not really a collector nor a lover of things, yet there are certain objects that I like to keep nearby. Things that no one else might care about or even notice. A chipped bird figurine that my mother loved. A strange coconut pit twisted by the sea. A piece of coral and a box of matches. A fountain pen. A shard of slate from the roof of my old appartement. All of these things sit on the shelf near my desk, giving me good karma or mojo or simply offering themselves for a bit of reverie or even a wisp of inspiration.
Amidst them all is one which surely you recognize, or at least the image which stares from it. It is a short squat little book, a bit larger than a postcard but heavy and nearly an inch tall. The book is called “Portraits” and contains images photographed by Steve McCurry.
I’ve had it for several years, way before pinterest and flickr and the myriad of ways we have now of sating our need for an image fix. Every now and then I turn a page to look at a face other than that of the now iconic “Afghan Girl,” propping it up so that each one has its turn.
I know them all, these faces, as though we were old friends. These are images lush with exoticism and naked with pain and pensiveness, shyness and sadness. There are but a few smiles, they look out in a sort of gentle staredown as though they were looking at me with the same curiosity as I them. These are portraits from India and Los Angeles, Tibet and Mauritania, of men and women, old and young, some joyful and others devastatingly sad, yet all with that piercing stare which draws me to them, which connects us somehow, for it is, in the end, all about connection.
I took it off the shelf today, wanting to reacquaint myself with the book as a whole, for I’d just seen the images of Steve Jobs captured by the young photographer hired to shoot him for a cover back in 1984, and read about the shoot and the interactions which now seem so telling of what was to come.
It got me thinking of portraits and how they freeze time with Vesuvian preciseness and care, sealing within things whose significance may not be revealed until years later. Like the shard of slate, the chipped bird, truths and tales nestle within.
Most portraits are posed, yet the best ones give the illusion of serendipitous capture. Lucian Freud, painter of incredible portraits of self and others, said that he painted people because, “The simplest human gestures tell stories.” McCurry sought to capture “the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face.”
Richard Avedon said “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” He was a master at capturing the unseen in even those we have seen a million times, his beloved celebrities, but also in everyday people—drifters and coal miners, rattlesnake skinners and debutantes.
When we read a novel or an essay, hear a singer’s voice, we conjure up in our minds the faces we imagine at their source. They are often collages of those we have known, combined and blended, blurred and made to fit the way we perceive them to be. Sometimes we are eerily in sync with reality, or another’s interpretation of same. Others we are not. (I imagined Mikael Blomkvist to look exactly like a dark curly-haired man from an insurance ad, not like Daniel Craig; the woman I heard speaking in the restaurant sounded middle-aged and blonde but was actually much younger and brunette.)
When we write (or cast movies, I suppose, although that’s something I’ll never do), we often work backwards, seeking out faces to match with our characters. I’ve yet to find ones that fit the way I envision mine, but perhaps that means I’ve left them open for readers to conjure up their own.
I was always drawn to faces. It’s as if I have a trigger-finger stuck to the zoom. In all aspects of life I like to get in close, preferring to see the shine of the eye, the lines of the cheek, the quiver of the heart which beats within.
Faces tell so many stories, and keep so many more within.