The ‘Sinister’ Photograph: Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Parábola óptica, 1931
Photography Discussed, The Tosca Photography Fund, 2010
The ‘Sinister’ Photograph: Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Parábola óptica, 1931
by David Campany
It is said that towards the end of her life Marilyn Monroe began to veto many of the portrait photos taken of her. Increasingly troubled by her own image, she would run her eye over the contact sheets placed before her and run a pen through most of the shots, leaving very few available for publication. Exasperated, the more manipulative photographers took to making images the wrong way around, flipping over the negatives before printing and showing them to her. Monroe then would see something more like her own mirror image, the personal rather than public version of her face. She accepted many more of these. Surreptitiously they would then be reversed back again for the mass media.
This story may be apocryphal but it is certainly true that many later photographers, including David Bailey, exploited this effective if dubious trick. These days, magazine culture and the publicity industry are even less careful about the images they circulate. In the digital age every computer design programme has a ‘flip’ command as standard, a creative tool lending instant flexibility to layout. Look closely and you see that the faces of the famous appear both ways around, to the extent that it is often difficult to say which is correct. One wonders if this ever troubles the famous themselves, or whether it’s an advantage to not know quite who you are, given the basic unreality of celebrity. What follows here is a set of thoughts about the reversal of images, about what it tells us about photography and what it tells us about looking.
Reversal has a long history in the making of images. Print makers, engravers and typesetters have always had to be intimately familiar with it because it’s a necessary stage in reproduction. When optics were put at the disposal of painters, lenses and concave mirrors were deployed to cast reversed images onto canvas to be traced off. The effect, as David Hockney has noted, was to suddenly flood western painting with depictions of left-handed people. William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the photographic negative, through which light must pass in order to make a positive image on photographic paper, opened up the potential for reversals by design or by accident. In Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s version of photography, a flipped image was fixed on a highly polished metal surface. Viewers had to adjust to the jewel-like apparition that boasted great detail but in reversed form. It proved less irksome than one might imagine, since most people wanted images of themselves and the Daguerreotype duly offered them their familiar mirror image in miniature.
The painter Edgar Degas had experimented with photographic reversal as early as 1895. He combined the procedure with positive/negative reversal in such a way that front/back inside/outside confuse each other to leave the photograph oscillating between realist description and plastic objecthood. Degas also took to painting and drawing only what he saw reflected in a mirror so as not to be overawed by actuality. Indeed many of his sketches of ballet dancers were made via those large mirrors that are still a fixture of dance studios. In a note to himself he wrote: “Do not permit yourself to paint things except when seen in a mirror in order to habituate yourself to the hatred of trompe l’oeil.”
The deliberate reversal of the photograph is not as commonplace as photographs that include mirrors, which have littered the medium’s history from the beginning. Nevertheless the mirror has recurred in photography’s self-understanding, giving rise to all those metaphors and analogies such as the ‘mirror of nature’ and the ‘mirror with a memory’. Its glass optics and automatic duplication seems drawn by kinship to the nature of mirrors. A photograph of a reflection is, on one level or another, a reflection on photography. The writer Craig Owens described it as photography en abyme: the image reproduces at an internal level the fundamental condition of the photograph as a whole. The camera ‘naturally’ produces a double of the world, a substitute of unprecedented naturalism, so a photo that includes a mirror doubles the double, defamiliarizing that first replication. At the same time it enables a mastering knowledge of the whole phenomenon, for photographer and viewer. It is photography made ‘self-conscious’ in a very direct sense. Just as a young child turns its empty mimicry of sounds it hears into intentional communication by repeating them (ma-ma, da-da), so the searching photographer seeks out the camera’s own kinds of echo in mirrors and reflections. Most photographers will admit to having pointed the camera at a mirror at an early stage in their explorations, usually to picture their own reflection. While discovering what photography is for them, they also attempt to confirm or recognise themselves as photographers. The two go together in a private moment of self-disclosure made public when the image is printed.
Producing a ‘mirror image’ by flipping the negative before printing is a peculiar, even perverse, species of manipulation. It keeps the image quite intact while fundamentally changing its relation to reality. It is natural yet unnatural, true yet distorting, ordinary yet extraordinary. As a result it tends toward the uncanny, which was described by Sigmund Freud as “that class of frightening thing which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. It reveals the world but at the cost of uncertainty, showing us the “familiar and agreeable” but in some way “concealed and kept out of sight”.
Not surprisingly Surrealism, with its interest in the uncanny and the unsettling double made great use of the mirror, most famously in the self-portraits of Claude Cahun. But it made almost no use of the reversed print. A rich and strange exception is Manual Alvarez Bravo’s Parábola óptica (Optic parable, 1931). Taken in Mexico, we see an optician’s shop window – all glass, reflections and doubling. There are seven eyes and a pair of spectacles in the picture, visual motifs we can read either way around. There is also writing that appears to us the wrong way around (since it is mono-directional written language within an image tends to betray any reversal). Are we inside the premises looking out through the reflective glass? No, but we are not fully outside either. We see the shop is called Optica Moderna, or Modern Optics. The name takes on wider resonance for an image declared a ‘parable’: a photo of one optician’s in particular becomes a meditation on optics and photography in general.
In Bravo’s image our point of view is made uncertain. The phrase “point of view” in everyday day speech refers to values or opinions about things (“What’s your point of view?”). In photography it refers to where you put the camera in relation to the subject. So it is often tempting to draw a straightforward parallel between a photographer’s values or opinions about the world and the positions from which they shoot it. There is always some kind of relation but there can be no formula. Part of the unspoken fascination of looking at photographs derives from the way we must always negotiate this relationship. This is especially true of Bravo’s image since its point of view is so blatantly equivocal. It deprives us of a solid position from which to look by proposing a point of view that is imaginary, as if from within a mirror.
Michel Foucault included the imaginary space of the mirror in his suggestive essay ‘Of Other Spaces’. There he compiled a speculative list of what he called heterotopias, social spaces of indefinite or multiple purpose that are understood to be both inside and outside society’s order (other heterotopias included the cemetery and the cinema). For Foucault,
From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.
His description certainly offers a productive way to think about the perplexing pleasures of Parábola óptica especially since the image does not actually include a mirror as such. It suggests or projects one.
In the spirit of the Surrealist embrace of chance, the final form of Bravo’s image came about by accident. He was checking over some printer’s proofs in readiness for a publication. He saw it had been reversed by mistake but he found he preferred it that way. A moment of uncanny recognition perhaps, in which his image appeared to have found some other intention, some other author, some other point of view beyond his own. Thus a photograph already thick with ambiguous duplications was given its final twist by the automatic hand of a technician.
Bravo took artistic possession of the gesture in 1940 when the front cover of the catalogue for the Exposicion International del Surrealismo carried his photograph of a broken stained glass window propped against a vine-covered wall, while the back cover showed the same image in reverse. Here the very architecture of the book form with its serial rectos and versos was recruited into the exploration of the photographic medium. I think this is significant. Modernist photographers of all persuasions saw themselves as belonging primarily to the printed page and assumed it would be where and how viewers would encounter their images. The page has exerted a tremendous influence on how photographs are conceived, selected, ordered and presented. Bravo’s reversed catalogue cover belongs to an unwritten history of reversal prompted by the formal and graphic possibilities of the page. That history includes the publications of many of the medium’s luminaries. For example Bill Brandt didn’t think twice about reversing an image if he felt it would aid the flow or juxtaposition of his photographs. László Moholy-Nagy’s book 60 Fotos (1930) is a dizzyingly sustained experiment with left/right positive/negative inversions across its thirty spreads.
Spread from L. Moholy-Nagy, 60 Fotos, 1930
Decades on, Surrealism has been somewhat institutionalised but Bravo’s image still causes problems. Over the years I have encountered it often in publications of one kind or another and many times it has been ‘corrected’ by diligent designers, thus undoing the conspicuous reversal that had made it what is was. It is cautionary tale that hints at why the technique has not been explored more widely. It needs constant vigilance.
A few years ago I found myself checking over the proofs of a book about to go to print. A friend leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “You have that Robert Mapplethorpe image the wrong way around”. The photo in question is an early self-portrait in which the young photographer leans into the picture from the right, his arm reaching across to the other side of the square frame. My friend showed me Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, in which Mapplethorpe’s image appears. Sure enough, he leans from the left. Nothing in the picture itself signals a reversal: no writing, no buttons or zip fasteners on clothing, no recognisable location. The image cannot declare itself correctly or incorrectly printed. It turned out the reproduction in Camera Lucida has always been in error. Unusually, Barthes’ book has kept the same layout it had when it was first published back in 1980. Perhaps the mistake doesn’t matter. Or perhaps it does. Several writers have remarked on the way Mapplethorpe’s half-open hand resembles the hands in Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. The bare arms of God and Man reach out to each other across a sublime void. Earth is on the left, heaven is on the right. Mapplethorpe placed himself on the right.
Beyond the accidental, would it be unreasonable to imagine that many of the famous photographs with which we are familiar are the result of crafty reversal? Who would know if for aesthetic reasons Edward Weston flipped his celebrated images of peppers or shells? Or if a tableau constructed by Jeff Wall looked better printed the other way around? These kinds of reversal would not draw attention to themselves and would go unremarked, carrying on a secret life within our field of vision and right under our noses.
Certainly the mirror image and the flipped photo are very closely related. But the latter may have less narcissistic origins than the former. Flipping comes not at the founding moment of the taking of the image but later. The taker becomes a maker who doesn’t over-identify with the photo as a slice of the real but sees in the image new and latent possibilities. Nevertheless both the mirror and the flip are gestures that can be photography’s path to profound meditation or to a cheap trick. And as we know, with photography the cheap and the profound are never that far apart.
Thanks to Zelda Cheatle who commissioned this essay and edited the book Photography Discussed.
Some of the ideas I discuss here are reworked in my book Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (Afterall/MIT Press, 2010) and in ‘Left Right, Wrong Right’, an essay written for Source magazine.