I photographed the portrait busts on view at the Museum’s main campus as a visiting fellow at the Getty Research Institute in 2008-09. That year’s theme was networks and boundaries and I was trying to think about the museum’s collection and its relationship to the City of Los Angeles, where I live. It began as an exploration of difference and thinking about the collection but it changed over the year as I was photographing.
The portrait busts at the Getty Museum largely consist of depictions of European men and women but it also included two sculptures of Africans. Like floating signifiers for which the chain of meaning has been broken — to borrow from Roland Barthes’s now-canonical analysis of photographic images — the portrait busts were representative but were they portraits? After all, what else are we to make of the 1859 portrait bust that was once believed to be of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican born nurse of the Crimean war, which was also once entitled “The African Head,” after it was learned that it was not a portrait of Seacole, but may have been misrepresented to increase its value, and is now simply known as “Bust of African Woman.”
With the advent of photography, the portrait bust became obsolete as Marble, bronze, and terracotta could not compete with the subtle nuances of light and shadow on a living person, captured in a single instant through the camera’s lens.
Drawing from my previous work, which examined the impact of physiognomy and the pseudo-scientific writings of Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) on American racial formation, I was curious to see what the Getty collection might reveal.
The most obvious link to Lavater was to be found in Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s The Vexed Man. Messerschmidt knew of Lavater’s writing, which had sought to position physiognomy as a science but he also believed than one’s outward appearance could reveal one’s inner character. Lavater insisted on the merits of studying the silhouetted profile drawn from life over the study of a living being, precisely because it distanced the viewer from the often messy realities of living beings. A gesture which runs counter to the scientific valuation of direct observation. He writes:
Were it possible to fix in Nature every momentaneous action, if there existed in it points of rest, it would be easier undoubtedly to observe after nature, than after the portrait. But as the case supposed cannot possibly exist, men being to much inclined to withdraw from the critical eye of the observer, it appears to me evident that an excellent portrait is in effect, in order to arrive at the knowledge of mankind, of greater use than nature, who only shows herself at intervals. 1.
What Lavater couldn’t imagine was that in less than half a century photography would make the impossible, a reality, and his desire to fix nature would be realized.
Included within this portfolio of images selected for the journal are two pairs of profiles, each depicting two racial categories, and rendered by the sculptor in black or white, respectively and their juxtaposition serves to foreground the arbitrary nature of racial categories.
- Lavater, Johann Caspar. Essays on Physiognomy: Designed to Promote Knowledge and the Love of Mankind, Illustrated by more than eight hundred engravings accurately copied; and some duplicates added from originals. Executed by, or under the inspection of, Thomas Holloway. Translated from French by Henry Hunter. London: J. Murray, 1789-98. Vol. III, P. 241.
Gonzales-Day, Ken. “Selections from Profile Series.”
Getty Research Journal, No. 2, 2010, Los Angeles, pp. 209-217.
Source: Getty Research Journal