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Memento Mori

Canon conducted an experiment about the power of perspective. They asked six photographers to take portraits of the same man. Before the session, though, each photographer was told a different story about the man’s life before the session. To one, he was an ex-con; to another, he was a recovered alcoholic; to another, he was a hero. Each photographer conducted a photoshoot with the narrative they were given in mind, and at the end every portrait was wildly different. Was it just the difference in backstory that influenced these artists, or was it their personal artistic approach? Do those things inform each other, and if so, how much? The results also beg the question: did the man in front of them additionally color their perspective?

Susan Sontag says in On Photography that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” which we see happen in Canon’s experiment. Each portrait used set, lighting, placement, and development techniques to curate a specific picture of their subject. Are any of those portraits actually the man sitting before them? We are also left unsure if some, or any, of those stories are true. If so, are those incomplete pictures inaccurate? The experiment revealed the power of an artist’s bias in creation: an inescapable reality in creativity, but one that can be noted and checked on. This I believe to be true: what the artist makes says more about them than whomever their subject is.

This is the case with Calvin, a memory of a man, conjured by Mother and Girlfriend in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s REALLY. This is a play about photography, perspective, memory, and how subjective they all really are. Girlfriend, a photographer, is doing a portrait session with Mother. It is sometime after Calvin presumed death. The two women are connected by this man, and exchange stories that attempt to capture his personhood. This exchange is part of their struggle to prove that they knew Calvin better than the other. However, these moment of his life are incomplete pictures. The play begs the question: are either of them right; can either woman accurately capture who he was? There is friction between the idea that a single snapshot can capture a person’s “essence” and the moment when another viewer steps in and disagrees with the picture. What happens when someone else sees something different, or misses something crucial? The portrait’s accuracy is subject to the collective understanding of the subject by the viewers. If the portrait is only a piece, a personality trait or mood, is it accurate or a lie? A half-truth?

Memory, in this way, plays a crucial role in photography and subject matter. Pictures can be manipulated and distort the image of a person. The people who know the subject can see more clearly than a stranger how accurate the portrait is— assuming they know the person as well as they believe they do. However, what happens when those people go away? When the portrait becomes a piece of history, it is up to the next generations to take in the imagery and pull what they see from it. This can be influenced by outside sources: other people, the narrative of history taught to that person, etc. There is, as Girlfriend says, a “white line of history” that does not go ignored in the story of this play. It is important to recognize that Calvin is described as a great, talented artist; while Girlfriend (a woman of color) lives in general obscurity. It is important to recognize that the history of photography itself is canonized as very white and very male. It is important to note, with that in mind, the extreme caution with which Girlfriend approaches her art.

There is the question of who a portrait reflects more of— the subject or the artist. As Mother and Girlfriend interacted, there was part of me that thought I was watching the women chafe against each other instead of conflicting tales of the man they both loved. The memories conjured by Mother versus by Girlfriend inform more about who those women are than they do about Calvin. What, and how, they remember is a testament to their own view of the world and this person, in his moment. Mother saw a damaged, lost boy who never got the kind of love he deserved. Girlfriend saw a frantic, volatile, but brilliant artist. Maybe both are true. Maybe neither.

I left the play feeling as if I learned a lot about Calvin, or at the very least, his essence, the core of who he was. I thought, “it has to be at least somewhat true, unless the Calvin we saw was a fabrication pieced together by Mother and Girlfriend.” It is very possible that this is the case. Maybe both portraits are flawed beyond recognition of the actual person. Is that the most we can expect? Is it impossible to see the real person inside of the photograph? If that’s the case, how reliable are these snapshots of a person’s life, really?

For tickets to REALLY, visit Company One’s website.


One comment on “Memento Mori

  1. That experiment is such a tangible example of what you’re talking about! Thank you for sharing it. Gave me a whole new… perspective…

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