Date of Submission
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The title of this work can be attributed to a quote by Abraham Lincoln. It was in response to a critic, potentially Fredrick Douglas, claiming his political views were not represented in his actions. To the crowd’s delight he quickly responded, “If I had two faces, why would I wear this one.” At the time he was defending himself from accusations of presenting himself differently than his actions portrayed. This quote originated during the civil war; however, it speaks to phenomena that has always existed and continues to exist today. Human beings are constantly judging others both through appearances and actions; therefore, we attempt to project an image of ourselves that may not accurately reflect our own true nature.
Photography has created a forum for even more reductive judgments, because images exist as still frame and do not capture the context or emotion of the situation outside of the image; however, photography still has a long and storied tradition of attempting to capture the nature of both a place and a person. Unlike painting or sculpture, there is the belief that photography can capture some universal truth that is unaltered and uninflected by the artists own subjectivity; somehow the mechanical nature of a camera creates emotional distance and objectivity. August Sander famously stated, “[w]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.” Although we have increased our knowledge of the subjective nature of photography, the belief in photography’s ability to document the truth continues to exist.
Truth and fiction is the inherent contradiction within photography. We want to believe in the documentary truth of a photography, but are held back by the realization of the inherent construction of the image. Even in so called “documentary” photography, we understand that an image does not convey a whole context. We are acutely aware that the photographer has chosen to exclude or include certain objects or people in the creation of the image. However, we want to believe that the image shows only absolute fact. In advertising this ideal is only exacerbated. The ultimate goal is to create some semi-believable idyllic situation from a wholly constructed fictional landscape of products and people. Although we know advertising doesn’t portray reality, our consciousness is sometimes subverted into believing a sublime fiction.
The issues of fact and fiction in photography have only been exacerbated with the introduction of technology. Photoshop has furthered the gap between reality and fiction to the point it has entered the lexicon to describe any image that is too unbelievable to be real. What if Cartier-Bresson existed in the contemporary world? The truth of his “decisive moments” might have been dismissed as “Photoshoped,” because he captured a moment too surreal to believe. At the same time, the internet has a flooded of the world with millions of new photographs from unknown sources, forcing us to quickly judge the veracity of each and every image.
The internet has also created new avenues for judgment of an individual or a place. Job applicants are frequently screened through Facebook and other social media outlets without any actual personal interaction. While we readily understand the limitations of images of portraying an accurate representation of a person or place, we still want to believe that a photograph can capture someone’s identity. In turn this has forced individuals to manufacture an identity through photographs and their digital footprint, forcing the internal struggle for identity into a public space.
Identity has forever been a tenuous internal struggle between your conceptions of yourself and the outward portrayal of those ideals. With the advent of modern media and technology, the manufactured ideals of society increasingly force a proscribed identity onto individuals. Magazines, television, internet, movies, radio, newspapers, advertising, etc. all enforce a uniform concept of identity. This leaves little room for deviation, and individuals must outwardly choose to conform or not conform to these societal constructs. Hiding in anonymity is no longer an option. Your image is your brand. You must portray yourself as you want to be seen. You must wear two faces: one for “real” life and a fictional one for public consumption.
This work highlights the inherent problem of fact within photography and the struggle to create an identity. The focus is on youth, whose identity is most in flux but at the same time most proscribed by modern society through advertising and other media. Youth has become a commodity. The idea youth has been appropriated by advertising products, but it is also the product. The media portrayal of youth through fashion, film, advertising, pornography is entirely physical: sleek, sexy, and fit. Youth without perfect physical form has little function in contemporary society; however, this constructed idea of youth does not exist and undermines reality. The media has created an identity for youth that confuses the already intense struggle for individual identity.
The images in this work are almost entirely of the same individuals cast as actors into different situations and contexts, highlighting the limitations of photography to represent reality. The natural inclination is to make a fantasized narrative between the same individual in different images, but this only highlights the point that there is no actual narrative. The narrative that is created belongs only to the viewer. It is a snap judgment based on fictional constructed images that do not speak to the identity or reality of the individuals portrayed. We then must wonder what is the actual reality and identity of these people?
The images also fall into a variety of genres and themes, related to the portrayal of youth through media. There are images reminiscent of advertising, film, television, and pornography, as well as, images that might be considering documentary. These images straddle the line of the true representations of these genres, but upon closer inspection they fall apart. This highlights the fragility of the media constructed world of imagery. Jumping between images shows the variety of ways photography inflects our judgments of people. The diptychs and triptychs highlight this problem more fully. Even subtle variations in framing and gesture with the same subject can radically alter our perspective towards a person.
The work also addresses issues of identity within the modern technological landscape. How do we want to be portrayed? How do we portray ourselves, and how does that fit into the fictional construction of youth culture? What happens with images outside of our individual control? How does technology enhance and undermine the ability to control one’s own image? Where are the borders between portrayal and actual representation?
What face do we want to present to the world, and what face do we want to keep hidden?
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Keto, John Scott, "If I had two faces, why would I wear this one?" (2012). Senior Projects Spring 2012. 118.
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