They say, in Kabbalistic wisdom, that God is concealed and revealed simultaneously, never one without the other. That is how I feel about portraits. Our faces are beckoning, moving mysteries of constant expression, layered with meaning that comes as much from without as within, and is just outside our cognitive reach. What does it mean to take a portrait then? Can we capture someone’s essence? Their nature? What meaning does a portrait carry? Why is it beautiful? And what is it about portraits that is somehow confrontational? Why do we stop and stare at portraits with a sense of being challenged, even, and perhaps especially, when they are of ourselves?
I have been staring at my own face since the first time I encountered my reflection and recognised it as my own as a toddler. I should know by now what I look like, and yet, somehow, I don’t. I mean, I recognise myself, of course, in reflections and in pictures, but it is always with the sense of both surprise and reassurance, as if I had forgotten, or hadn’t been entirely sure. I can, (and God knows I often did as a teenager), sit or stand still in front of a mirror, stare directly at myself, and still not be sufficiently sure. The question of what I look like is as much, ‘What do I look like to others?’ as it is, ‘What do I look like to myself?’
The question used to be, and to a large extent still is, Am I beautiful? Am I pretty? I most certainly wanted to be. I played with expressions and angles in the mirror. In some I was hideous, in some, if I held just the right angle and made just the right expression, I was worthy of portraiture, black and white, preferably, classic. But where had my template for beauty come from? I know that when I looked like my mother, whom I have always thought of as beautiful, I felt reassurance. The notion of family resemblance enchants me to this day. But, every once in a while, when I figured I looked almost like a movie star, my ego would feel quite content. ‘Could I be pretty enough to be a movie star?’, was as engaging a question to my young mind as, ‘What does falling into lava feel like?’ and ‘Are killer bees a real thing?’
I felt both hideous and beautiful most of my life, though the hideousness has somewhat dissipated over the last few years, due, to a large extent, to some crucial utterances I consider myself lucky to have heard. One was a sentence a friend spoke about a movie he’d seen: “The characters’ faces were so ugly they were beautiful,” he’d said, and I instantly knew what he meant, and loved it. It made me consider how and why conventional ugliness can be exquisitely beautiful. Another was a professor of mine, telling of her first meeting with her new dormitory roommate, whom she thought was very ugly upon first encounter. They became good friends, and she said, “I’ll never forget the realisation that her wonderful personality and my love for her made me see her now as totally beautiful, as if a light had been turned on.” I had had similar experiences with friends, and if love had something to do with beauty, it became clear to me that my sense of my own beauty and ugliness might have to do with the fluctuating levels of my love for myself.
My sense of my own ugliness had to do with two major forces. I was bullied in school. The mean girl flat-out told me I was ugly, and I believed her. I was also a new kid from another country, did not have the brand name outfits, and my body was bigger than the average kid’s. I was told I need braces when I smiled. It didn’t help that I had freckles. It certainly didn’t help, a few years later, that I had pimples. I felt bulky and awkward. Puberty did not help my sense-of-beauty cause. I had unwanted hair. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by a society in which most every other girl and woman shrieked, “oh my God, I look terrible,” upon seeing herself in a photograph. “I look fat.” “I look stupid.” It didn’t help that ugly people were called beautiful because they were popular. They were the ugly beautiful, as opposed to the beautiful ugly.
Pictures back then were not digital, and therefore, very few and far between. If yours was an ugly photograph you were stuck with it until a better one was taken. Sure, there were some redeeming mirror-moments in between, but the photograph was still a grim reminder you were ugly. A roll of twenty-four, used on some family vacation or class trip, we’d wait until it was ready for pick-up at the store, eagerly flip through the sticky rectangles, and at most of them, we would cringe. In these photos, I never looked like the pretty version of my reflection I had hoped would appear in them. Only in a rare few was I pleasantly surprised.
The second force of my ugliness had to do with racism. It never really occurred to me until my big nose was teased in a racial context in high school. This was magnified when I moved to Montreal at twenty-four years old and was recognised by my neighbour for my race. It scared me. She had not said it in a friendly way, and I became more self-conscious about the give-away aspects of my appearance.
When I was younger, I imagined an older version of myself brimming with confidence. I never once thought I would be held back in life because I was too ugly, and I wasn’t. I did think I might never have a boyfriend, but I ended up with quite a few. And, when I wasn’t dwelling, or being made to dwell on my apparently flawed visage, when I was enjoying myself in play, in dance, in day-dream-filled solitude, immersed in my work, in the loving glow of my family, (who told me I was beautiful), or in the sensual embrace of a man, (who implied if not outright told me I was beautiful), I was able to feel beautiful. It came and went.
I drew. I drew self portraits in notebooks. I made thick eyebrows, and a pointy nose, rounded shoulders, not-skinny thighs, and I tried to articulate myself into something I could see and understand visually. I tried to draw my beautiful self. I tried to draw my ugly self too.
I did other things too with my time, like graduate high school, leave home, attend university, work for my living, write and play songs, attempt grown-up love.
It wasn’t until I started singing professionally that being photographed became commonplace in my life, and photos began to appear of me where I was decidedly pleased with the presence of some beauty. There had been the odd one in the past that was alright, and now with increasing number, I would treasure these good portraits of me as if they were my key to everything that was holy: Proof I was pretty. In the photos of me singing I found the most elegance, the most timelessness, the most grace, and that is what made me see beauty. And though that indeed sounds sublime, when asked by a photographer what made me like certain photos of myself as opposed to others, I had to admit, to myself, and then to her, an awful truth: The photos in which I appeared, thin, white and western, were the ones I loved the most. I was ashamed that I felt this way about myself when I did not in the least feel that way about others.
Something else became apparent. Like young Narcissus at the water, I could not get enough. As more photographs came in, I became fascinated with my own face. Was it insecurity? Was it, indeed, narcissism? Or was it the fact that looking at my own portraits elicited a profoundly uneasy sense of question. Was it an acknowledgment of and discomfort with time itself, passing in incremental moments, possibly traceable from photograph to photograph?
One way or another, the question that hits me each time is, Is that really me? It is interesting that this question hits me more when I think they are beautiful portraits. With the ugly photos, it is easy to self-identify. In the pretty ones, I almost feel underserving of the representation. Or at least I used to. It took awareness of the social importance of broadening beauty standards to begin to accept good portraits of my ugly self, as beautiful too. It took seeing several beautiful portraits of others to love my own humanity. And there have been some surprising aspects of my own face which I had somehow never seen. Hundreds of photos and still one can come along where I think, “I look like that?” I am grateful for that experience.
What is the magical quality that some portraits have, that turn them from a plain old picture to a mysterious marvel, a window of truth that commands attention? A good portrait is a strong moment made still. It is filled to the brim, almost bursting, with authentic human emotion. It is clear, and if it is blurry it is because blurriness is intentionally being depicted. A portrait knows it is not the full picture, but it makes you want to see more and engage. It is the precise space that hovers in between the now and the eternal. It conceals, as well as reveals. It tells us something we know, and yet brings us into a heightened state of question. There is intense familiarity, yet at the same time there is a total sense of otherness. The great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that the encounter with a person’s face is the “event of ethics,” because it brings us outside of ourselves, in attentiveness to the ‘other.’ This seems to be the case even when we look at portraits of ourselves. Portraits, then, demand ethics.
It is no wonder the digital age has unleashed a frothing sea of selfies. The phenomenon is sociologically and philosophically fascinating, and to me, quite understandable. The great shame of them is that they reveal the ubiquity of sameness. Few are ‘great portrait’ selfies. A photographed face that demands to blend into a commonplace trope is not nearly as enchanting as a face that breathes its uniqueness through the truth and originality of its expression. It is hard indeed to come up with an original costume, but the naked face is already original. It is a profoundly unique culmination of specific genetics, language-formed musculature, experience, emotion, thought, confidence, and insecurity. It demands to be identified as singular, and by doing so, it reminds us of what is common about our own humanity. Pouty bathroom selfies never do this, because they are significantly unoriginal. Good portraits make faces new again.
It is for this reason that the art of portraiture is crucial. It is identity-building and challenging, and it asks us to break open our lazy sameness, our norms of beauty, by capturing that exact mysterious moment where the specific and the eternal meet. No matter how many faces and portraits there already are, a new one of value still surprises and engages us. This in itself is as mysterious and miraculous as the fact that a sunset can take our breath away every single time anew.