Definitely Not Me: Photos, Masks, Skins

Valentin Groebner

Photography had yet to be invented, but Denis Diderot already had its number. “That’s not me!” he wrote in 1773 upon seeing a portrait of himself. He had a hundred different faces on any one day, “depending on what I am captivated by. Cheerful, sad, dreamy, tender, testy, passionate, but never the way you see me here.”1 He wore a mask that no image could reproduce because too many things were fused into it and showed on his face in such rapid succession that no painter’s eye could keep track of them.

Unknown, french postcard to "Muttergottes von Einsiedeln", Switzerland, 1916

And he was right. The human countenance functions as a communicative interface, because it is in motion—no other part of the body has so many muscles concentrated in such a small space. Every image flash-freezes them. No matter how precisely its details are captured, every portrait shows something that simply does not exist in reality—an ossified, immobilized set of features. “If you were to invent a machine”, Diderot had asked a few years earlier, “capable of producing paintings like Raphael’s, would these pictures still be beautiful?” His answer was harsh: “No.” “And the machine? Once it has become commonplace, it would be no more beautiful than the paintings.”2

This machine arrived in 1839, and the public was enthralled—here at last was a process that could create exact reproductions of people, enthused the French interior minister: the state should immediately purchase the new technology. In 1851 the photographer Louis Dodéro called for all official documents to be provided with photographs—at long last there were to be fixed, reliable images. It was the very thing that others found intolerable. “I despise photographs”, wrote Gustav Flaubert in 1853, “quite as much as I love the originals. Nothing about them is real.” He would never permit a photographic portrait to be made of him. He was not alone in this. In 1860 Jakob Burkhardt wrote that he hadn’t “allowed himself to be portrayed or photographed for years,” and in 1864 he once again protested, “I can and will not permit my own countenance to be photographed! My aversion is far too great—I do not know why.”3 Charles Darwin wondered uneasily whether his facial expression was really as repugnant as in the photos of him, and others were afraid of suffering irrevocable losses: the writer Honoré de Balzac thought that with each portrait a thin layer of skin was peeled from his own face so that in the end nothing would be left of it.

Yet their contemporaries had also noticed a quite different effect—multiplication. “Each new picture”, wrote the American photo enthusiast Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861, “gives us a new aspect of our friend; we find he had not one face, but many.” The carte de visite process had been patented in 1854. This made it possible to develop several portraits on one sheet of photographic paper in a single run. The new combination of photographic portraits pasted on top of printed visiting cards was a phenomenal success: at the time it was known as the “carte de visite epidemic”. One’s own image, captured in different poses and costumes against an array of backgrounds, was to be given away, sent out, distributed; other people’s pictures were collected, swapped, and put on display. Every year several hundred million of these portraits were produced. When in 1860 American president Abraham Lincoln was asked by an admirer for a carte de visite, he replied that he had long since lost control of his picture in the new medium. “I suppose they got my shadow and can multiply copies indefinitely.”4

“Shadow” was the term commonly used in the US for the new images. Or should one say “shadowing”? After initial attempts to make photographic records of suspects in the 1840s and 1850s, the police departments in Europe and America had spent four decades collecting standardized photographic portraits of actual and alleged wrongdoers to put in their archives—only to find that they were of little practical use. Criminologists complained that cases of doppelgängers and chance resemblances could never be completely ruled out; it was too easy to manipulate one’s appearance, and one and the same person looked different in different pictures. The police’s portrait photos were all direct and precise—and yet unreliable because they were so direct and precise.5

Every camera was a magical device for stopping time: but in the age of endless reproductions of one’s own appearance, the faces in the portraits became an immense stream of ever-changing facial expressions and poses. George Bernard Shaw nicely encapsulated this in 1902 in his ironic remark that even the very best painters could only ever show one view of a person at a time—which, of course, never corresponded with reality. “The camera,” he continued, “with one sitter, will give you authentic portraits of at least six apparently different persons and characters.” Eugène Delacroix had already noticed this back in 1850. “Which of us has not one hundred faces? Will my portrait of this morning be that of this afternoon and tomorrow?”6

Whenever a familiar procedure is replaced by a new technology, the old techniques suddenly appear solid, reliable, and substantial vis-à-vis the triumphantly faster, mercurial, uncontrollable devices that have superseded them: but only in retrospect. In the debates that raged 150 years ago about the new mass images produced by photography, many themes emerged that seem strangely familiar in an age when digital images of people’s faces are snapped, copied, and sent out in their millions. Could it be that the new media are most successful in places where they embody old desires? Since ancient times, physiognomy had promised, with the precise analysis of the exterior, the face, to finally decode a person’s inner, hidden characteristics: with the invention of photography in 1839, this desire found a new medium. Hence the obsessive search for the true, the revealing, the “characteristic” in the millions of images of faces—faces of patients, of suspects, of job applicants, of marriage prospects, and all the other possible fulfillers of wishes, fixed with silver salts. Only these faces remained just what they had been before: mobile.

In a 1927 essay Siegfried Kracauer did not search for historical paradigms to fathom the secret of these photos, but reached for a magnifying glass. “This is what the film diva looks like. She is twenty-four years old, featured on the cover of an illustrated magazine, standing in front of the Hotel Excelsior on the Lido. … A glimpse through a magnifying glass shows us the grain, the millions of little dots that constitute the diva, the waves and the hotel.” He continues ironically: “Never has an age been so informed about itself, if being informed means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense.”

Kracauer refers to the “Believe me!” (delivered with a wink) that is embedded in every photo, the flirting with the illusion of the medium: this resemblance was not really meant to be so reliable. Four years later, in his movie M, Fritz Lang brought to the screen a series of close-ups of Peter Lorre’s blurred and contorted face: a face that is reproduced in any number of manhunt images, newspaper pictures, and film posters. The photographer Helmar Lerski had also published his Köpfe des Alltags (Everyday heads), eighty faces from the Berlin underclass: cleaning ladies, the unemployed, day labourers, dramatically staged like film actors. “Everything is there in each face,” remarked Lerski. “The only question is what the light falls on.”7

All these photos reveal much more about the obsessions of the institutions that commissioned them than they do about the owners of the faces whose images they show. The spectacle of sociability, which was at first an aristocratic and subsequently a bourgeois phenomenon that produced millions of cartes de visite from the 1860s on; the state bent on identification and control that initially wanted photos of the insane and criminal suspects and, after 1915, sought to have passport photos of all its citizens; the popular press that in the 1920s began to develop an insatiable hunger for famous faces, for images of the faces of actors, politicians, and sportsmen; the booming market for contemporary art which in the 1970s catapulted the subjective self-portrayals of the makers of art, complete with their faces, into the exhibition rooms of galleries and museums; the new commercial social media channels of the last ten years with their compulsive need for selfies: all of them image factories, conveyor belts for pictures of faces, in potentially endless series.

Is this a bad thing? Perhaps. Your face, dear viewer, certainly remains your own—but only its living, unphotographable version cast in flesh and blood. Your image though, as we learn from our stroll through media history, has never been you. It was always only a shadow, a cluster of dots on the screen, a little bundle of pixels. It is a mask peeled off your face, the skin Diderot and Balzac wrote about. It takes on a life of its own—and begins to shimmy and flap, like one of those thin plastic bags that are so good at flying. Bon voyage!

And you will stay right where you are.

Translation: Simon Cowper

1 Denis Diderot, Ästhetische Schriften, vol. 2, ed. Friedrich Bassenge (Frankfurt am Main, 1968), 25.
2 Quoted in Daniel Spanke, Porträt – Ikone – Kunst: Methodologische Studien zur Geschichte des Porträts in der Kunstliteratur (Munich, 2004), 284.
3 Jakob Burckhardt, Briefe, ed. Max Burckhardt (Basel/Stuttgart, 1949–94), vol. 4, 52 and 152; see also Jan von Brevern, “Resemblance after Photography”, Representations 123 (Summer 2013): 1–22.
4 Valentin Groebner, Ich-Plakate: Eine Geschichte des Gesichts als Aufmerksamkeitsmaschine (Frankfurt am Main, 2015), 77–79.
5 Ibid. 82–84.
6 Eugène Delacroix, “Le Dessin sans maître”, Revue des deux mondes 7 (1850): 1139–46; quoted in Brevern, “Resemblance” (see n. 3), 8.
7 Groebner, Ich-Plakate (see n. 4), 106–13.

Valentin Groebner (*1962 in Wien) teaches history at the University of Luzcerne. He is the author of Ich-Plakate: Eine Geschichte des Gesichts als Aufmerksamkeitsmaschine (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2015).