A Wilderness of Mirrors – Musings on Portraiture

 

This weekend I finished Neil Gaiman’s collection of essays – A View From The Cheap Seats. My favourite of which as a photographer is called “A Wilderness of Mirrors.” It is about the National Portrait Gallery (which I visited while in England years and years ago) but I think beyond that it is about portraiture and its ability to tell us a truth.

“Who am I? 

Is the first question. 

The second is harder to answer. It was this: Who are we?

And to answer it I would open the family photo album. The photographs, black and white in the front, color in the later volumes, had been carefully stuck with photo mounts on corners and handwritten notes beneath each photograph. … This is who we are, the albums said to us, and this is the story we are telling ourselves. 

When we look at a portrait we begin to judge, because human beings are creatures of judgement. The joy and power of portraiture is that it freezes us in time. Before the portrait we were younger, after the portrait we will age and rot. 

Ask the question, Who are we? and the portraits give us an answer of sorts. 

We came from here, the old ones say. We look like this naked and clothed, they tell us. We are here, in this image, because a painter [or photographer] had something to say. Because we are all interesting. Because we cannot gaze into a mirror without being changed. Because we do not know who we are but sometimes there is a light caught in someones eyes that comes close to giving us the tiniest hint of an answer.”

I often shy away from pictures, but the more deeply I think about photography the more I believe I should be in at least a few. They tell us a truth about ourselves and where we came from and the people that make us happy. This weekend is one I won’t forget, curled up on the couch with dark chocolate that we bought by the pound, I read Gaiman’s book, I cooked pizza, hiked, and laughed till my stomach hurt, and maybe I don’t need a photograph to remember it, but there is a few, and I like what these ones are saying about who we are.

“Perhaps it isn’t a collection of portraits as TS Eliot put it but a wilderness of mirrors.”  – Neil Gaiman

 

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