Text: ‘Facile, Facies, Facticity’ by Dr Marcus Bunyan; Exhibition: ‘About Face: Contemporary Portraiture’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Exhibition dates: 9th August 2013 – 19th January 2014


Rachel Herman, American 'Hannah and Tim' 2007


Rachel Herman (American)
Hannah and Tim
Inkjet print (printed 2012)
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation



Facile, Facies, Facticity


“The structure of presentation – point-of-view and frame – is intimately implicated in the reproduction of ideology (the ‘frame of mind’ of our ‘points-of-view’). More than any other textual system, the photograph presents itself as ‘an offer you can’t refuse’.”

Victor Burgin 1


Facies simultaneously signifies the singular air of a face, the particularity of its aspect, as well as the genre or species under which this aspect should be subsumed. The facies would thus be a face fixed to a synthetic combination of the universal and the singular: the visage fixed to the regime of representation, in a Helgian sense.

Why the face? – Because in the face the corporeal surface makes visible something of the movements of the soul, ideally. This also holds for the Cartesian science of the expression of the passions, and perhaps also explains why, from the outset, psychiatric photography took the form of an art of the portrait.”

Georges Didi-Huberman 2


How shallow contemporary portrait photography has become when compared to the sensual portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron, the grittiness of Gordon Parks or the in your face style of Diane Arbus. I think the word facile (from Latin facilis ‘easy’, from facers ‘do, make’) with its link to the etymologically similar word ‘face’ (Old Latin facies) is a good way to describe most of the photographs in this posting. These simplistic, nihilistic portraits, with their contextless backgrounds and head on frontally (also the name of an insipid Australian portrait photography prize), are all too common in contemporary portraiture. People with dead pan expressions stare at the camera, stare off camera. The photographs offer little insight and small engagement for the viewer. If these photographs are representative of the current ‘frame of mind’ of our ‘points-of-view’ vis a vis the construction of identity then the human race is in deep shit indeed. As we accept an offer that we can’t refuse – the reflexivity of selfies, an idealised or passive image of ourselves reflected back through the camera lens º we uncritically accept the mirror image, substituting passive receptivity for active (critical) reading. We no longer define and engage critically with something we might call ‘photographic discourse’:

“A discourse can be defined as an arena of information exchange, that is, as a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity. In a very important sense the notion of discourse is a notion of limits. That is, the overall discourse relation could be regarded as a limiting function, one that establishes a bounded arena of shared expectations as to meaning. It is this limiting function that determines the very possibility of meaning. To raise the issue of limits, of the closure affected from within any given discourse situation, is to situate oneself outside, in a fundamentally metacritical relation, to the criticism sanctioned by the logic of the discourse…

A discourse, then, can be defined in rather formal terms as the set of relations governing the rhetoric of related utterances. The discourse is, in the most general sense, the context of the utterance, the conditions that constrain and support its meaning, that determine its semantic target.”3

These photographs have few conditions that support their meaning. The context of their utterances is constrained by their own efficacy and passivity. Paul Virilio, speaking of contemporary images, describes them as ‘viral’. He suggests that they communicate by contamination, by infection. In our ‘media’ or ‘information’ society we now have a ‘pure seeing’; a seeing without knowing.4 A seeing without knowing… quite appropriate for these faceless images, images that contaminate how we observe humans living in the world. Of course, one can be involved in logical criticism of the discourse from within but that still gives the discourse power. By situating yourself outside the conditions that constrain the discourse, you can criticise from a different perspective, “seeing something new” as an active, temporal protension of seeing. “Such is the fundamental instability of the pleasure of seeing, of Schaulust, between memory and threat.”5 We may glance, instead of staring (as the subject of these portraits blankly stare back) – the glance becoming a blow of the eye, the acting-out of seeing.6

Here is a possible way forward for contemporary photographic portraiture: a description of the states of the body and the air of the face through a subtle and constant art of the recovering of surfaces, an inquiry that always seeks depth – conceptual depth – in the filmy fabric or stratum of the cameras imaging of the constructed subject. In other words an inquiry into the source, the etiology and logic of the subjects own being – through the glance, not the passive gaze. Even as the object of knowledge is photographically detained for observation, fixed to objectivity, that knowledge can slip away from itself into what Georges Didi-Huberman calls the paradox of photographic resemblance.7

“Thus photography is ultimately an uncertain technique (see Barthes. Camera Lucida. p. 18), changeable and ill-famed, too. Photography stages bodies: changeability. And at one moment or another, subtly, it belies them (invents them), submitting them instead to figurative extortion. As figuration, photography always poses the enigma of the “recumbence of the intelligible body,” even as it lends itself to some understanding of this enigma, and even as this understanding is suffocated…

And when one comes to pose oneself, before a photograph, paradoxical questions: whom does this photographed face resemble? Exactly whose face is being photographed? In the end, doesn’t a photograph resemble just anyone? Well, one cannot, for all that, simply push resemblance aside like a poorly posed problem. Rather, one points a finger at Resembling as an unstable, vain, and phantasmatic temporal motion. One interrogates the drama of imaginary evidence.

For “to resemble,” or Resembling, is the name for a major concern about time in the visible. This is precisely what exposes all photographic evidence to anxiety, and beyond it, to staging, compromises, twisted meanings, and simulacra. And this is how photography circumvents itself – in its own sacrilege. It blasphemes it own evidence because evidence is diabolical. It ruins evidence, from a theater.”8

Only through slippage may we stumble upon the uncertainty of the soul in the uncertainty of the photographic technique. Only through the facticity of the face, the “thrownness” – Heidegger’s Geworfen, which denotes the arbitrary or inscrutable nature of Dasein, being there or presence, that connects the past with the present, just as photographs do – of the individual rendered in the lines of the human face can we engage with the intractable conditions of human existence. Not a bland resemblance-filled anxiety (the hair covering the face, the face in suburban ephemera, the compressed face pressed up against the condensation-filled window), but an unstable signification that has been passionately re(as)sembled in the anxiety of photographic evidence. Only then can contemporary portrait photography make visible something of the movements of the soul, ideally.

“Into this world we’re thrown /
Like a dog without a bone”
(Jim Morrison, Riders on the Storm, 1971)


Dr Marcus Bunyan



  1. Burgin, Victor (ed.,). Thinking Photography. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982, p. 146
  2. Didi-Huberman, Georges. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere (trans. Alisa Hartz). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003, p. 49
  3. Burgin, pp. 84-85
  4. Virilio, Paul. “The Work of Art in the Electronic Age,” in Block No. 14, Autumn, 1988, pp. 4-7 quoted in McGrath, Roberta. “Medical Police,” in Ten.8 No. 14, 1984 quoted in Watney, Simon and Gupta, Sunil. “The Rhetoric of AIDS,” in Boffin, Tessa and Gupta, Sunil (eds.,). Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology. London: Rivers Osram Press, 1990, p. 143
  5. Didi-Huberman, op. cit., pp. 27-28
  6. Ibid., “Coup d’oeil, signifying “glance,” literally means the “blow of an eye.” Here as elsewhere, Didi-Huberman draws on the notion of the glance as a blow. He also works with the various meanings of trait, including trait, line, draught, and shaft of an arrow” – Translator
  7. Didi-Huberman, op. cit., p. 59
  8. Didi-Huberman, op. cit., p. 65

Many thankx to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Anna Shteynshleyger, Russian (b. 1977) 'City of Destiny (Covered)' 2007


Anna Shteynshleyger, (Russian, b. 1977)
City of Destiny (Covered)
Inkjet print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Lise Sarfati, French (b. 1958) 'Emily, 2860 Sunset Blvd.' 2012


Lise Sarfati (French, b. 1958)
Emily, 2860 Sunset Blvd.
Chromogenic print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation




Alec Soth (American, b. 1969)
Mother and daughter, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1999


LaToya Ruby Frazier, American (b. 1982) 'Momme' 2008


LaToya Ruby Frazier (American, b. 1982)
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation



This exhibition will explore the breadth and global diversity of contemporary photographic portraiture since 2000, highlighting recent acquisitions to the museum’s permanent collection.

About Face will include works by twenty-nine artists from the United States, England, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Iran and South Africa. Though each of these photographers approaches portrait-making differently, certain thematic threads resonate throughout the show, including questions of racial, cultural, ethnic, class and gender identity; the relationship between individuals and typologies; the way photographic processes themselves inform meaning; the relevance of historical precedents to contemporary practice; and the impact of media stereotypes on self-presentation. Considered collectively, the works in About Face offer a provocative and engaging forum for considering the question: how do we define portraiture today?

The project will present two distinct, simultaneous exhibitions: About Face, our in-gallery exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins, and Making Pictures of People, a digital exhibition presented online for web-based audiences worldwide. Visitors will be able to access the Flak Photo exhibition via touch screens in the gallery and on mobile devices outside the museum. The goal of our collaboration is twofold: to celebrate the complementary experiences of engaging with photographs as objects and as images, and to connect museum visitors in Kansas City with an international community deeply engaged in thinking about portraiture and contemporary photographic practice.

“Contemporary photographers approach portraiture from multiple perspectives, and this show reflects that diversity,” said April M. Watson, who co-curated this exhibition with Jane L. Aspinwall (both are Associate Curators of Photography). “Some portraits emphasise the construction of identity through race, gender and class, while others question the relationship between individuality and typology, or the impact of the media on self-presentation. At the core is the relationship between the photographer and his or her subject, and how that interaction translates in the final portrait.” Adds Aspinwall: “Some of these photographers use antiquated processes such as the daguerreotype and tintype to make portraits of contemporary subjects. These historical resonances add an interesting dimension to the show.

Press release from the  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website


Richard Learoyd, English (b. 1966) 'Erika' 2007


Richard Learoyd (English, b. 1966)
Ilfachrome print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation in honour of the 75th anniversary of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


Jocelyn Lee, American (b. Italy, 1962) 'Untitled (Julia and Greenery)' 2005


Jocelyn Lee (American, b. Italy 1962)
Untitled (Julia and Greenery)
Chromogenic print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Jim Goldberg, American (b.1953) 'Prized Possession, Democratic Republic of Congo' 2008


Jim Goldberg (American, b.1953)
Prized Possession, Democratic Republic of Congo
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation




Vanessa Winship (British, b. 1960)
Hakkari 8
Inkjet print (printed 2008)
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Pieter Hugo, South African (b. 1976) 'Annebelle Schreuders (1)' 2012


Pieter Hugo (South African, b. 1976)
Annebelle Schreuders (1)
Inkjet print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Sage Sohier, American (b. 1954) '12-Year Old Boy with His Father' 2009


Sage Sohier (American, b. 1954)
12-Year Old Boy with His Father
Inkjet print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Michael Wolf, American (b. 1954) 'Tokyo Compression #18' 2010


Michael Wolf (American, b. 1954)
Tokyo Compression #18
Inkjet print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


Tomoko Sawada, Japanese (b. 1977) 'Recruit/BLACK' 2006


Tomoko Sawada (Japanese, b. 1977)
Chromogenic print
Purchase: acquired through the generosity of the Photography Society



The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak Street
Kansas City, MO 64111

Opening hours:
Thursday – Monday 10am – 5pm
Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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