Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 16, 2000
Robert Sobieszek Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850–2000 Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. 324 pp.; 184 color ills.; 116 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (0262692287)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Oct. 16, 1999-Jan.17, 2000.

In Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850–2000, curator Robert Sobieszek has produced a highly ambitious and intelligent catalogue to accompany the eponymous exhibition he recently organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Considering the photographic portrait from an intriguing combination of philosophical, quasi-scientific, historical, and theoretical perspectives, Sobieszek has written a profusely illustrated and annotated work that should hold a place as a valuable resource on portraiture for some time to come.

The scope and serious intent of Ghost in the Shell are somewhat unexpected, given the rarity of substantial writing on portraiture, particularly in exhibition catalogues. In fact, for a subject so central to the history of artistic production, portraiture rarely receives its critical due. The common assumption that a portrait is fundamentally an exercise in achieving likeness has contributed to a prevalent, barren view of the subject, and thus historians and critics rarely attempt sustained discussions of portraiture without resorting to the old staples of biography and style. This is especially true of photographic portraiture, with its irreducible tether to the real and its ubiquity as the bread-and-butter practice of commercial photographers of the past 150 years. So often dismissed as simple objects of mnemonic utility, portrait photographs have been given the least critical attention of all.

Sobieszek’s concern, then, is not with who is shown in a portrait, but rather with how our belief in what a portrait can actually express has changed with historical shifts in the understanding of subjectivity. This further distinguishes his inquiry from two of the established texts that delve seriously into the subject: Roland Barthes’s poignant ruminations on the ontology of the photographic portrait in Camera Lucida (1981) and Richard Brilliant’s more general theorization of the social function of the portrait in Portraiture (1991) (both strangely absent from Sobieszek’s lengthy bibliography). Proceeding from the book’s provocative titular claim to address “Photography and the Human Soul,” and with his extensive research conveniently on view in footnotes, Sobieszek approaches his subject with a dauntless enthusiasm that only occasionally leads the discussion astray in an overabundance of metaphor and analogy.

As a means of organizing the extent of 150 years of photographic portraiture, Sobieszek breaks his material down into three roughly chronological concepts of “faciality” which correspond to paradigms of premodern, modern, and postmodern thought. Each section focuses on one figure whose work serves as the springboard for the section’s central themes. Hence, Duchenne de Boulogne’s photographs of artificially stimulated human expression furnish the model for the premodern faith in physiognomy/pathognomy as the visible analogue of the soul, Andy Warhol’s deadpan replications of celebrity headshots announce the modern portrait as a passive screen for the projected subjectivities of the artist and viewer, and Cindy Sherman’s protean shape-shiftings exemplify the postmodern denial of the possibility of the stable, unified subject.

In the opening section, “Gymnastics of the Soul: The Clinical Aesthetics of Duchenne de Boulogne,” Sobieszek uses his authoritative knowledge of nineteenth-century photography to good advantage in giving the most complete interpretation and historical account to date of the photographic project of Duchenne, a French physiologist who helped open the nascent fields of neurology and kinesiology. In the 1850s Duchenne began photographing experiments in which he used an electric probe to stimulate the facial muscles of his subjects, in an attempt to map the circuitry that he believed connected interior emotional feeling to exterior facial expression. Sobieszek discusses Duchenne’s enterprise in light of the rise of positivism, filling in a complex background that centers around the popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fascination with physiognomy and pathognomy. He perceives the death-knell of physiognomic culture and the belief in an absolute corollary between soul and face in the work of Duchenne’s own student, Jean-Martin Charcot, who ushered in the twentieth-century’s psychoanalytic culture, in which, writes Sobieszek, “the self and its soul were imploded and impacted within the mind and its subconscious, and the physiological face was rendered moot if not mute” (79).

In “Tolerances of the Human Face: The Affectless Surfaces of Andy Warhol,” Sobieszek theorizes the modern portrait as reflective and suggestive, but no longer expressive of the nature of the individual. With the earlier hope of locating “essence” in a facial semiotics struck down by a revised view of human faciality as a site of utter indeterminacy, the portrait could be recognized simply as a shaped canvas, a ground prepared to receive the artist/viewer’s fantasies, preconceptions, and formal experiments. Leading the reader along a trajectory of mugshots, typological portraits, ethnographic studies, and Bauhaus formalist exercises—all phenomenologically vacant images which receive their primary meaning from without—Sobieszek brings us to Warhol, whose portraits are about nothing so much as his (and our) own obsession with the face of fame.

It is likely that contemporary audiences will be more familiar with Cindy Sherman and the discontinuities of postmodern experience than the material covered in the first two sections, but after the in-depth treatments of the Duchenne and Warhol sections, the third chapter, “Abstract Machines of Faciality: The Dramaturgical Identities of Cindy Sherman,” feels somewhat thin. Here Sobieszek relies heavily on the authority of an army of contemporary critics (Rosalind Krauss, Amada Cruz, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Norman Bryson among them) to flesh out the postmodern condition as a permanent state of personal and social dislocation, an atomization of the self. Although Sobieszek brings forward a number of other modern and contemporary artists in this chapter, Sherman makes an obvious choice as the central figure. With their aggressively fake personas and hyperbolic theatrics, Sherman’s portraits mock the old belief in the righteous transparency of the face, just as they make the modern narcissism of endless self-projection seem quaint.

Some readers might find Sobieszek’s tripartite theorization of premodern, modern, and postmodern paradigms of subjectivity overdetermined by the particular interpretations the author offers of his exemplars, and the linear divisions between these paradigms somewhat arbitrary. For instance, Richard Avedon’s famous quotation about surfaces—"The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface…You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All that you can do is to manipulate that surface—gesture, costume, expression—radically and correctly"—still infers that there is something “beyond the surface,” some “real nature” of the sitter that is present and waiting to be conjured forth by the photographer’s incisive actions (136). This doesn’t seem to represent a great shift in either practice or ideology from Duchenne’s physical and theatrical manipulations of his subjects. However, Sobieszek does lessen this false sense of lock-step progression by including examples of each paradigm drawn from a cross-section of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources and objects.

The book occasionally loses its force in the side-effects of Sobieszek’s otherwise admirable attempt to be inclusive. His arguments begin to weaken when he burdens them with too many spiffy examples and references, too neatly excised from such diverse sources as comic books, anthropological studies, Victorian fiction, fashion photography, philosophical tracts, movies, psychoanalytic treatises, television commercials, and so forth. Still, any shortcomings caused by Sobieszek’s enthusiastic stockpiling of evidence can be forgiven as the occasional excesses of a writer who wishes to powerfully demonstrate the minute cultural diffusion of what might otherwise appear to be remote theoretical concepts of identity and subjective experience. The tendency toward excess is more egregiously manifested in the carnivalesque design of the book itself. While filled to capacity with handsome full-color illustrations, the repetitive insertions of full-bleed, double-page spreads of monstrously enlarged facial details are distracting. Moreover, the hefty, eleven-inch-square design of this 324-page book makes for an awkward read, especially in soft-cover.

Notwithstanding these sundry criticisms and inconveniences, Ghost in the Shell exemplifies what should be the ideal of museum publications. Sobieszek has produced a lively, intellectually driven book based on original research that offers much to both casual and specialist readers.

Laurie Dahlberg
Associate Professor, Program in Art History, Bard College