This photograph by Chris Levine, Lightness of Being, is extraordinary for a variety of reasons, the most important one possibly being that it utterly confounds our expectations1. We live in a day and age where usually the opposite is true: Photographs of public figures are made to show us what we expect, ideally in the most glorious form. We could call this our cultural sublime: Getting awed in exactly the way we expect to get awed. In the strictest sense, this type of sublime is at least 50% fake, because what we’re ultimately really in awe of is our own (imagined) sense of good taste. (more)
Our public visual culture thus reflects our underlying narcissism. We are glorious, and we expect to see that when we see depictions of the people that serve as our leaders, regardless of whether they’re elected or not. This state of affairs is not profoundly different from how the visual culture in non-democratic states is produced, laugh as we may about the - seemingly - absurd results2.
When photographs of public figures such as the heads of states are made for reasons other than having to sell a magazine things shift a little. There are things that we (still) agree on that must not be sold, and that includes the function of the office the person in question holds. Whatever one might think of some particular person holding an office, the power of that office itself contributes massively to the cohesion of the state, as it reflects the power that holds everything together.
This is another part of the sublime I mentioned earlier, a kind of political sublime, which, I think, cannot be strictly or at least easily be separated from the cultural one: This person has a lot of power, a lot of which is accorded to her or him simply by the fact that s/he is the head of state.
A photograph of a head of state needs to convey this as well. But since here there is no space for narcissism, the conventions are somewhat different. Official portraits of heads of state usually are not very interesting or exciting photographs. US President Obama might look like a Marvel superhero on the cover of Time Magazine, but the official portrait is quite different: It could have been taken by a moderately skilled employee of a Sears portrait studio.
Levine’s Lightness of Being is extraordinary because first of all, it’s none of the above (btw, if you click on the small image on the left-hand side, you’ll see a much larger version). The photographs skirts the heroic magazine portrait just as much as it circumvents the conventions of the official photograph. In fact, it acknowledges the rules of both, while subverting them in equal measure. There is no way, I suppose, to work around the conventions simply because heads of state are so well known, especially if they have been around for as long as Queen Elizabeth.
Lightness of Being is also extraordinary because it engages the viewer in such a direct way, using the subject’s apparent refusal to do so as its tool: The Queen’s eyes are closed, she appears to be in some sort of trance. How could this be? Or as one of my students once asked: Is this for real? Of course, this photograph could simply be a clever manipulation, but it isn’t. And even if it were - would that change anything?
We’ve become accustomed to question the veracity of photographs, maybe to an extent where we’ve become blind to understanding how photographs actually work. The news context aside, possibly the only context where the veracity of photographs truly matters, we have essentially established a discussion about technique as a way of dealing with photographs that confound our expectations: I see something that I did not expect - somebody must be manipulating something here.
Of course, all photographs are manipulated and manipulate something, and the very best photographs do it most successfully. The best way to deal with this would be to expect that and, possibly, only that - instead of working the other way around: Show me something I already know. Lightness of Being pokes right at our expectations: What you really want to or at least expect to see is a dignified, somewhat official-looking portrait of the Queen. Well, you actually do get that, but things are a bit off. The colours are somewhat out of whack3, and the Queen’s eyes are closed. That aside, everything else is perfectly in place; as a matter of fact, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to complain4.
But everything about this photographs feels so strangely out of this world. Well, at least it seems the Queen is, right here. Her apparent refusal to engage with the camera and thus, by extension, with our own gaze5, is somewhat unsettling. But it would feel strange to be upset about this, since it’s the Queen, and who are we to tell the Queen what to do? So what is she doing here? How can we wrap our heads around this?
Good photographs ask questions. Good photographs engage us, by making us think, feel something, by changing us into slightly different people. Good photographs are scary. Good photographs ask of us to be secure enough about ourselves to withstand the scrutiny we might be facing.
If anyone would scrutinize people, might it not be the Queen? Isn’t this then maybe the kind of photograph that just had to be made, finally putting the Queen back in charge - while otherwise, in photographs as well as in paintings, she has been reduced to a face well known?
image: Chris Levine, Lightness of Being, 2004 - kindly provided by the artist; thank you!
1 So that we get this out of the way right away: Follow this link to get the background of the image.
2 How/why exactly is Kim-Jong Il looking at things more absurd and/or funnier than, say, photographs of US politicians hugging babies when on the campaign trail?
3 Annie Leibovitz’s portrait, which makes the Queen look as if she were part of an advertizing campaign for American Express easily falls into the “colours out of whack” category as well. But since we’re used to this kind of look-and-feel of photographs, we don’t notice it any longer.
4 Hardcore monarchy fans might possibly disagree.
5 We might deny this, but deep down, we still believe that people in portraits look back at us.