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A Couple of Ways of Doing Something is the product of a collaboration between artist Chuck Close and poet Bob Holman. Better known for his large photorealistic portrait paintings based on photographs, Close here presents twenty 11x15 inch digitally scanned reproductions of daguerreotype portraits he made of selected friends, such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass, as well as of himself and Holman. Facing each portrait, Holman contributed a "praise poem," and "infused the poems with the subject's own words, to make it more personal, to allow the subjects to represent themselves" (iv). Lyle Rexler's engaging and informative interview of both Close and Holman rounds out the book.
According to Close, the image and the poem "should hold the page equally" (iii).
HOLMAN: . . . It took me a long time to look at anything as long as it takes me to read a poem. It was Alice Notley, the poet, who took me to a de Kooning exhibition and said, "All right, stand in front of the painting until you write a poem. Then after that, you can feel free. You can go to the next one and do that." That taught me to look at something that long. That's what I would like the rhythm to be in this book. If you're used to looking at the art for a long time and reading the art, then you can spend that much time reading the poem. If you're used to reading the poem, then you spend that much time reading the art. (vii)
A daguerreotype is a single non-reproducible plate, resulting from a difficult and hard-to-control process. It was one of the earliest photographic techniques, dating from 1840. But the results, as in these pages, can be stunning.
REXER: Why is the daguerreotype so attractive?
. . . .
CLOSE: Well, I'm certainly not interested in it because it's antiquarian. I'm not nostalgic. The thing I love about daguerreotypes is that everything I love in photography was already there at the very beginning--1840. The incredible detail. The incredible range, from the brightest highlight of white, sometimes solarized, almost bluish in color, to the deepest, darkest, most velvety blacks. I love that. I love the fact that, as opposed to so many photographs that are painting-sized, which thirty people can stand in from of, each daguerreotype requires the active participation of one viewer. It's intimate, one-on-one, personal. I even made a couple of paintings just from daguerreotypes because there's something about the luminosity that is very different from a silver print.
. . . .
. . . there's something almost painterly about a daguerreotype. The paintings that I love best, by Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Van der Weyden, have the intimate size, the incredible detail of the daguerreotype. They make you gasp when you look at them. (vi)
The images feature incredible, breathtaking detail: every pore and hair stands out as they would under a microscope, as you would never see them with your naked eyes. They produce the same kind of shock and wonder at the revelation of the unfamiliar in the commonplace that we see in the best microscopic images of, say, the teeming life in pond water.
But the detail in Close's portraits occurs within an unusually small depth of field. In a typical head-shot, both the tip of the nose and the ears are out of focus, with hair behind the ears fading into unrecognizability. The combination of sharp detail and shallow depth of field pulls the viewer's attention to the eyes. Thus the subjects capture the viewer in their gaze, and the faces leap off the page.
The tonal range of these daguerreotypes is stunning. The silvery luminosity of the highlights emerges from the inky blackness of the background and gives the images a shimmering, ethereal quality.
REXER: And daguerreotypes are unforgiving. In the nineteenth century there were reams written about the fact that if you decided to have a daguerreotype made, you took your self-image in your hands, because nothing would be left out.
CLOSE: It was more warts-and-all than any other process. Because it's so red-sensitive, any marks, any flaws are heightened. You have to be pretty comfortable in your skin, and vanity goes out the window. And it's also physically painful. A normal daguerreotype is a more than two-minute exposure. We've made it instant photography by having a billion foot-candles of light go off all at once, and that's very painful. The flashes are so intense your eyes slam shut. It's like having an ice pick shoved in your eyeball. You can smell the hair burning. (v)
© 2008 Robert Kimball
Robert Kimball, University of Louisville
Photographs of James Siena and Ellen Gallagher are by Chuck Close, from A Couple of Ways of Doing Something (Aperture, 2006).