William A Ewing - Face: The New Photographic Portrait

Alexander Kennedy is touched, terrified and tormented by a major new study of the face in contemporary photography


A face is a mask, is a lie. The face acts as a permeable membrane, a negotiated zone between the subject and the object, outside and in. In William A Ewing’s book Face: The New Photographic Portrait, we are presented with evidence of this postmodern claim, where everything is artifice, even how we construct and construe the ‘self’. This anthology of selves shows that not only is our subjectivity continually evolving, but the face as our anchor in the social world is also on the move, slipping from the beautiful to the ugly, or mostly hovering like a phantom between the two.

The most extreme work by some of the most respected contemporary photographers grimace and peer out of the pages. Barbara Kruger’s cold, black and white head shots are branded with Big Brother-style ambivalent statements such as ‘Your body is a battleground’, while Cindy Sherman’s augmented self-portraits pose and preen like freshly spray-tanned buffoons, waiting for their close-ups. The power of both Kruger and Sherman’s versions of the de-centered self has diminished somewhat over the last twenty years, but the images by younger, lesser-known artists take their observations and theories into some very dark and extreme places (Eve Lauterlein and Daniel Lee, for example).

When the barrier between the self and the other breaks down, the face cracks and something abject and terrifying creeps out. The French body artist Orlan uses digital photographic morphing techniques and surgery to intentionally mess up an increasingly repulsive face. Elsewhere, the faces of children have been stretched, folded and caved-in to create warped ‘Angels’ and ‘Demons’ (in the work of John Stezaker, for example). You may close this catalogue of abjects and put it back on your coffee table, but those little beady eyes will keep on staring out at you.

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