Photo-Philosophy

One Good Photo of Everybody – by Frank H. Wu

Now as never before I like looking at people. My obsession with taking photos has made me much more interested in other people. I have to be careful not to stare at strangers. But I have come to appreciate the great heterogeneity of humanity.

The truth is I pay attention to what shows character, not what is conventionally attractive. A face that is symmetrical and smooth, male or female, that most observers would deem handsome or sexy can be a good subject for a portrait, but I do not need to be the one to make it. Beauty is a bore. I don’t want to replicate a souvenir postcard of a gorgeous vista either, except insofar it presents a technical challenge. It is a visual cliche. Give me a face with detail, one with the lines of life. (My taste in the literal sense, i.e. for food, runs to the bitter, sour, extremely spicy, overpoweringly savory, and pungent, not the sweet. Perhaps these likes are related, integral signs of my innermost personality.)

My aesthetic preference is not all that idiosyncratic. Our scrutiny does not fall on the ordinary. We ogle but briefly.

Consider all the likenesses of wrinkled older persons, constituting a genre done to death. The Asian peasant woman with missing teeth smoking a pipe of tobacco, wearing a wide brimmed hat, is an archetype of the exotic glimpsed by the sightseer. She has company. Diane Arbus celebrated the deviant as normal. Her art has been imitated crudely, devoid of that essential bond of empathy. That is what ensured she was not exploitative. She was one with freaks and outcasts, extending to them a humanity that others would deny. Except that they approved of her, not she of them. Her biography suggests she had reason to feel less than at ease in the world. She was compelled to create.

Paintings demonstrate similar sentiments. Our late contemporary Lucien Freud is among my inspirations. I understand him to be celebrating, not shaming, his subjects, in their corpulence, posed casually. His predecessor Chaim Soutine, who specialized in depicting butchers’ work, is another favorite. The side of beef not quite yet rotting is real and true, neither fetish nor garish. To perceive ugliness on their canvases is to reveal one’s self. They have displayed only reverence for flesh.

I revel in imperfections. I want to frame a mole on a cheek according to the rule of thirds. Most eyes will be drawn to it. There should be a word for that sensation of simultaneously being unable to avoid gawking but also wishing to avert one’s gaze. There also are freckles, scars, stubble, lazy eyes, and caps and hats that capture my attention. The spray of hair that will be trimmed once noticed, coming out of noses and ears, is fascinating. These features are enthralling, because they are unique. I encourage a grimace, scowl, or squint, in lieu of a fake smile. Even a moment of distraction or authentic weariness, has its charm. We can be seduced by what surprises us that also can sustain itself despite scrutiny; what has weathered, proven its durability in the world, commands respect.

Even though I mean to show such physiognomy as alluring, I am aware that people sitting for me, as well as those viewing the result, likely will misinterpret my vision. They assume I intend insult. After I explained what I am looking for, a friend of mine wondered what it meant that I had photographed her so often. She was not eager to have her skin reproduced with clinical accuracy.

Thus in processing, I edit as people, the majority of them, would wish. I adjust the sliders for clarity and shadows, rendering people softer and lighter. I flip on the vertical axis, resulting in a more familiar mirror image. I clean up blemishes. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to coax family and friends to pose more than once, after they saw themselves as I see them. They are not my props to manipulate. Each of us has our own conception of ourselves. We want that face thrust forward. We sit still in order to be flattered. I promise glamour. (For the record, my friend Tim looks good to me in the photo above. He also looks distinctive.)

Almost all the people I pass on the street, I would photograph if they were willing. Virtually without exception, they are lovely. I am convinced a good photograph can be taken of everybody. It only requires a good photographer to do it.

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