Graven Image

February 29, 2016


"Head No. 13" by Philip-Lorca diCorcia 

 

In 2001 the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York mounted an exhibit of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s large-format photographs of pedestrians on a sidewalk in Times Square.  DiCorcia had rigged strobe lights to scaffolding across the street and aimed his telephoto lens at a particular spot about 20 feet away.  The pedestrians were unaware that they were being photographed.  The subject of one of the pictures, a retired diamond dealer named Erno Nussenzweig, came across his image in an exhibit catalog and filed suit, claiming that his privacy had been invaded. A Hasidic Jew, Nussenzweig also objected that the photograph violated religious strictures against the making of “graven images.” 
 

Although street photography was a long established practice in New York and elsewhere, the Nussenzweig case was the first legal challenge.  The courts eventually ruled that diCorcia’s right to free artistic expression under the First Amendment trumped Nussenzweig’s privacy rights.  The judges’ opinion conceded that the plaintiff may have found the photograph deeply offensive on religious grounds but determined there was no redress of this grievance in civil courts. 
 

Like most photographers, I am sensitive to the etiquette of taking pictures in public places.  Normally, I will ask permission before photographing a stranger at  close range.  However, this is not always possible or even desirable, especially when there are time constraints.  Then there is the problem of “camera face” – the pasted-on grin we habitually display whenever a camera is pointed in our direction.  If we want a more natural look, we have to catch our subjects off guard, before they have a chance to pose. The expressions on the faces of diCorcia’s subjects as they stare off into the middle distance would never have been captured had they known they were being photographed.  
 

The paradox is that the self we present to the camera is never the person that others would recognize when we are truly being ourselves.  The features may be the same.  But there is always some essential quality that eludes us whenever we pose for a picture.  Actors or models learn to present a convincing impersonation of themselves; still, it is a mask.  The soul is eclipsed by our self-consciousness.  
 

Tribal peoples who first encountered photography sometimes resisted having their pictures taken for fear that the camera would steal their souls.  There are echoes of this in the belief among some Hasidic Jews and Mennonites that photographic likenesses constitute “graven images” that usurp God’s place in creation.  And why is it that we feel the need to ask permission before taking a stranger’s picture?  The answer is contained in the question.  When we snap the picture, something is “taken.”  There is an exchange in which some quality or essence belonging to the subject is transferred to the photographer.
 

In my experience, the subjects of a photograph are not always the best judge of what constitutes a good picture of themselves.  In some cases, they have long since concluded they are not photogenic and do not wish to be confronted with the evidence.  More often, their self-image is at odds with the way they appear to others.  It may be a simple question of vanity.  Or it may be that the photograph captures qualities that the subject does not wish to reveal or may not even be aware of. 
 

St. Peter, whose views on women would hardly be regarded as enlightened by current standards, cautioned against such outward adornments as braided hair, jewelry and fine clothing.  Instead, he advised, “let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.”  I was struck by the phrase “hidden person of the heart,” because it begs the question, “From whom is this person hidden?”  To the extent we come to identify exclusively with our outward adornments, or self-image, we may discover that the “imperishable jewel” that is our true self may be precious in God’s sight but invisible in our own.