I was browsing through Lenscratch searching for some inspiration in preparation for Assignment 1, when I came across Paul Matzner’s work. Matzner is a photographer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lenscratch ran a feature on his latest project Facing You/Facing Me which is a series of headshots he has made of people out on various streets. His project statement reads as follows:
We pass people on the street every day without making eye contact or even acknowledging their presence. We are connected to our music, our phones, our technology, but not necessarily to the people around us. I have chosen to share a momentary, public intimacy with those passersby so that I can gaze longer at their faces and value their humanity. We need each other in this world. Awareness of the people around me is the first step toward appreciation of who I am and who they are, whether those relationships remain anonymous, or become more revealing over time.
This project seems to be one quite long in the making as Matzner has created a portfolio for every street he has photographed in. He has faces of Michigan Avenue, Chicago; 5th Avenue, Harlem; Brady Street, Milwaukee; Mitchell Street, Milwaukee; Delancey Street, New York; Smith Street, Brooklyn; Devon Avenue, Chicago; and Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee.
Upon closer inspection of the sets of photographs it seems that Matzner shot most of the images at the same location on each street. Although the background is very blurred and all context removed, one can recognise the shapes and background colours. It is also interesting to note that only three streets (Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Delancey Street in New York and Smith Street in Brooklyn) feature a cosmopolitan cross-section of the population. All ethnicities are present. In 5th Avenue, Harlem mainly African-Americans are featured with a scattering of Latinos and Caucasians which contrasts sharply with Brady Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee which feature mainly a Caucasian population. Devon Avenue in Chicago is clearly home to a large Middle Eastern and East Indian population while the Faces of Mitchell Street in Milwaukee were a bit more difficult to pinpoint and left me feeling rather ambiguous.
The photographs are all taken quite close up to the subject. In most of the photographs, the top of the subject’s head is cut off and in some even the bottom of their chins. What is compelling throughout the entire series though is the gaze. All the subject look directly at the photographer (and viewer). Matzner allow for many visual clues to be visible on his subjects. We only catch the tiniest glimpse of their clothing, not enough to discern whether they are rich, poor, homeless or gainfully employed. Granted we can guess at their social class or status when we observe tattoos on their neck, but that is all.
We only really have two of the four key elements (face and location) present that make up a portrait:
- face (facial expressions, hair) – personal appearance
- pose – manner and attitude
- clothing – social class, sex, cultural values and fashion
- location (or background setting) – social scene of the person in the picture
Bate, D. (2009), p.73
From the closely cropped headshots we cannot discern the pose or clothing. We see enough of the blurred background to know that the portraits have been taken outdoors on the street, but no specifics are discernible. So we can draw no real social connotations about the subjects. The headshots are really quite close and in your face and there is an intimacy about this closeness.
While I was scrolling through the images, I had the distinct feeling that I knew or had encountered some of these faces. There was a strange familiarity to some of them. Have I seen their doubles on the streets of Vancouver? Or is it the expression in their eyes that I recognise in people I pass on the streets? The majority of the portraits have a deadpan expression, but there are a few with slight enigmatic expressions. I think even if the subject assumes a deadpan expression, there is still a slight emotion that is evident in the eyes, be it a soft or hard expression.
Bate. D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Pault Matzner Photography Facing You/Facing Me [Online] Available at: http://www.paulmatzner.com/f282907006 [Accessed 11 June, 2016]
Smithson, Aline (2015). Paul Matzner: Facing You/Facing Me [Online]. Available at: http://lenscratch.com/2015/06/paul-matzner-facing-youfacing-me/ [Accessed 11 June 2016]