Photos capture ‘Countenance’

Ten artists come together in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA)’s latest exhibition, Beyond the Familiar: Photography and the Construction of Community. Spanning photography’s history, they have sought to expose the character of entire peoples using specific representatives. Celebrating the exhibition’s opening, Public Relations Assistant Aimee Hirz, 2007 graduate of the College’s Graduate Program in the History of Art, led a gallery talk entitled “Questioning Reality: The Archives of Fiona Tan and August Sander” this past Thursday, offering more insight into two of the exhibit’s featured artists.

The collection includes the work of August Sander, a German photographer who made his living selling portraits until he joined the Cologne Progressive, a group of artists seeking to compile a massive project on the German social order. In 1925, Sander envisioned a book collection called Citizens of the 20th Century. He believed in physiognomy or the ability to read the story left on a person’s face like a book. From those examples selected from 40,000 negatives, seven classes and professions were posthumously included in books. Pairs of photos hang in the WCMA, a testament to Sander’s confidence in photography’s superiority at recording time.

The talk on this portion of Beyond the Familiar brought us to Fiona Tan. Born in Indonesia in 1966, she grew up in Australia before living around Europe – a professional foreigner defined by what she was not. Sander’s project inspired in her a response taken from a different angle. She used a grant for the year she spent in Berlin to create filmed portraits of residents. The result is Countenance, an installation the WCMA will feature from September to next February.

The video begins with the artist’s monologue of the archive process while portraits loop. The black and white scheme provides the project a timeless, documentary feel similar to Sander’s endeavor. In this journal of a year, her eyes digest countless faces as her perspective changes and she no longer takes for granted what she notices about people. Her habit of listing things strikes her as “arbitrary, idiosyncratic and doomed to fail.” Tan compares herself to an amateur biologist collecting butterflies. An extensive collection of lists amounts to an archive’s entirety. All we have to define people is their countenance – their appearance or façade. Faces that the artist encountered flash across the screen; the last shown is a self-portrait from the other side of the lens. The gazes of all unabashedly traverse the medium to the observer.

In the next room hang three panels that display three life-size sections of life. Some of the portraits previewed in the monologue return among the ranks of some 225 clips. Like Sanders, Tan now includes the bodies with the faces to show what these people do. Working people and social constellations are shot alone or in groups. Tan’s subjects give rise to laughter, as if they are performing. The very young endear us by not exactly adhering to the goal of staying still. Habits like rocking also disrupt the suspension. It therefore becomes more natural to us to view self-conscious people in their subtly differing poses. The newer subjects, familiarized with Sander’s work, sometimes emulate those who previously represented their classes.

Subjectivity affects the viewers as they look for humanity, and in essence themselves. While some commented on the shots being far more artificial than candid, the focus here seems to be more on people than the technique prominent from Sanders. On her vignettes, Tan remarks that “Oddly, whilst one might think a filmed portrait offers similar results [to photography], I find I become less aware of the image and more aware of the person as an image.”

In less than five minutes, Tan immerses the audience in an animated culture. Interactive, dynamic backdrops encompass life in the span of moments. Styles of society and life compose the background, with the sound included here transports attention and then a new individual has taken over the spot where the eye was drawn from. In any given minute, the three frames compete for dominance. We find, as Tan has, that the images are constantly “lost” to us. This installation lacks beginning or end, and it is very unlikely to see the same portraits side by side – we feel that we might be missing something. Sander and Tan leave it to be said how long it would take and if we can truly define people.