G. Hughes . Game Face :Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture

Variable Piece # 101 by Douglas Huebler consists of 10 portraits of Bernd Becher , a German photographer , accompanied by a written statement.

Becher was required to portray the following persona in this order :

– A priest
– A criminal.
– A lover
– An old man
– A policeman
– An artist
– Bernard Becher
– A philosophiser
– A spy
– A nice guy

Huebler returned the images to Becher two months later but the photographs were sent out of sequence to the originals. Becher was then asked to remember and “make the ‘correct’ associations with the given verbal terms” (Hughes ,pp. 53) .

Becher’s statement is as follows

– Bernard Becher
– Nice guy
– Spy
– Old man
– Artist
– Policeman
– Priest
– Philosopher
– Criminal
– Lover


‘Words and image combine, one playing off the other ‘ (pp. 53) highlighting the difficulty of determining the truth of the relationship between the two.

Two widely circulated catalogues of the work were published :

1992-93 —a retrospective exhibition held in Limoges , France.
In the catalogue Becher’s selection appear to correlate with the numbers on the photographs and appear to be accurate and well reasoned representations of the various characters. ‘Word and image seem to dovetail neatly as photography captures its types’ (Hughes, pp.53) . However whilst both the original and Becher’s statements were included Huebler does not indicate which of the two lists corresponds to the images shown in the catalogue.

1995-96 Reconsidering the Object of Art , Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Whilst the images were numbered in the Limoges catalogue they were left unnumbered and ‘worse still , the first and third photograph in each of the series is different , appearing in one catalogue but not the other’ (pp. 54) . However whilst the statement was unchanged it was impossible to link words with image hence ‘two forms of information–text and photograph– confuse and conceal rather than affirm and disclose’ (pp.54).

Hughes describes Huebler’s Variable Piece # 101 as a ‘critique of two very different forms of photography’ ( pp. 55) — Becher’s typological studies of industrial buildings and structures to that of photographers such as Richard Avedon , Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson. The 10 portraits of Becher are presented in a grid seen ‘as the representative figure and form of a rational , systematic approach to photography’ (pp. 55) whilst the contorted facial expressions ‘signal a form of photography that is the polar opposite of the Becher’s ‘ (pp. 55) . Both forms of photography ‘are voided in Huebler’s photographic portraits’ (pp.55). Huebler’s portraits mimic Becher’s objective style of photography , ‘these multiple images of Becher make evident the precise aspects of photographic portraiture negated by the Becher’s : the reliance on text as a means to determine identity’ (pp.63) .

Mixing the chronological order of viewing is something Huebler makes use of ” I have always scrambled my photographic representations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events ” (Hughes ,pp. 56) ‘Across the surface of Becher’s face we see the signs of his assumed character-types cleaved from their referents. Unable to match word to image, we see in Becher’s caricature the constitutive illiteracy of the physiognomic face’ ( pp.61) Hughes suggests a ‘photographic portrait functions in a manner exactly opposite to photography’s innate material function of fixing and preserving’ (pp. 61) .

‘Reflecting the Becher’s photographic technique back onto Becher himself , Huebler not only foregrounds the Bechers’ critique of physiognomic photography , he also makes explicit the Bechers’ polemic engagement with—-the “new objectivity” –of August Sander’s photographic portraiture’ (pp. 63) . Between 1910 and 1934 Sander travelled across Germany with the aim of chronicling modern German society through posed portraits of a broad spectrum of its citizens. ‘In its attempt to structure the social face of Weimar , Sander’s project neccesitated an archival will to truth , objectivity , and comprehensiveness through a suppression of individual style’ (pp. 66) .

Sander’s seven categories were intended to catalogue archetypical shared human characteristics

– The Farmer
– The Skilled Tradesman
– The Woman
– Classes and Professions
– The Artists
– The City
– The Last People.

Each of the seven categories included subjects with representative similarities. Within each category both the bricklayer and industrialists share the status of Skilled Tradesmen. The final group , The Last People included within its category the elderly, those with disabilities (physical and mental ) , the homeless , beggars etc , the most vulnerable section of society. Sander’s intention was for the portraits to objectively depict archetypical shared human characteristics.

Hughes notes ‘Becher sardonically performs for Huebler’s camera—Sander’s physiognomically based photographic portraiture’ (pp. 66)

Variable piece # 101 voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera –faces that can never be properly aligned with their descriptive type’ (pp. 66) . It additionally breaks down the tacit connection ‘between text and photograph opening an abyss between Becher’s identity and representation’ (pp. 68) . Furthermore Huebler never reveals the correct correlation between text and image hence without this information ‘like Becher we can only guess who is who , never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong’ (pp.69).

Bibliography / References

Hughes, G.. (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, Volume 66 , No 4 Winter , 2007, pp. 52–69.

Accessed 26/4/16

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