“In Coming Face-to-Face: Rob Amory’s Portraits”

            Human faces are the principal tokens of personal identity, the prime sites of self-identification and, correspondingly, the source of our immediate knowledge of others. Face-recognition is instinctual, a product of hard-wiring in the brain that serves the self-protective interests of the viewer --- including small infants --- while simultaneously establishing the social and emotional contact between our spectating selves and “others”. Of course, the sum of one’s nature, of one’s personality, is not necessarily, or even completely, composed in the face. There are other important components of self-representation: the body, tone of voice, linguistic practice, fashion of dress and hair style, and signs of social status, as well as significant prior knowledge of the other.

            If these are the principal conduits of access to the other, the result of observation, true knowledge and effective recognition may be distorted by misreading expression, confusion in taking in the visual signals, and poor social skills, all resulting in misunderstanding or even misidentification. There is also to be considered the willful confection of appearance by the portrayed other, including deliberate masking, that in effect, constitutes an intentional misrepresentation of self, and disguise.

            To know another well may depend ultimately on knowing oneself equally well. To recognize the lineaments of one’s personal appearance, not only in private while standing before the bathroom mirror in the morning and doing one’s face, where self-identification is a given, differs fundamentally from the presentation of self in public, where knowledge has to be garnered from the reaction of others.

            Painters who make portraits and photographers who take portraits are faced with a dilemma: how to create a consolidating image of a person, the subject, that goes beyond the immediacy of appearance and incorporates the character of the subject portrayed and, in some measure, his/her history. The character of an individual and his/her prior history, the constitution of their non-corporeal identity, hover in invisibility until rendered visible to others, whether agreeably or not, by the interpretive skill of the portraitist. It is the artist’s  powers of observation, choice of telling moment, and heightened degree of engagement that become the ingredients for the successful transformation of a recognizably indexical image into the affective portrait of the other, truly accessible to members of the community of actual and potential viewers.

            Rob Amory has undertaken this difficult task in his striking, immediate, highly detailed photographic portraits whose descriptive intensity reveals the identifiability of those persons known to him but heretofore unknown to us. The enlargements of the actual physical size serve as a vehicle for a powerful suggestion of intimacy, when coupled with reiterated close-up. The seriously composed expressions reveal a mind-at-work within the facial envelope, responding to the fact that having a portrait taken, and made, is serious business because it establishes a permanent record of one’s existence, separate from oneself. Amory’s stated self-effacement as the responsible portraitist is not as complete as he seems to believe. There exists an over-riding sense of sympathetic detachment, common to all his portrait photographs. Altogether, they constitute Amory’s mark, as an artist-photographer-portraitist, and result in his and our recognition of the common humanity of his subjects.

            Amory, thus, may present himself as the dispassionate recorder of the existence of others who caught his eye as worthy subjects of portraiture, worthy because they exist in the world, and worthy because he found them so. The photographs themselves with their insistent mode of self-presentation, their super-real faciality, elicit from the viewer --- ourselves --- the very question that lies at the foundation of all human interaction, “Who is this person appearing before me ?”

Richard Brilliant

January 2007