Back to square one, a (re)visitation to vintage portrait photography in Kevin Casha’s The Likeness Project.
In his treatise on photography Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes observes an enigmatic equivalence in a portrait photograph taken in 1865 by Alexander Gardner. The sitter is Lewis Payne, a prisoner about to be hanged for conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Barthes says that ‘by giving me the absolute past of the pose… the photograph tells me death in the future’.
In his recent exhibition The Likeness Project, held at St James Cavalier, Kevin Casha also revisits the early days of photography to search for acumen in portraiture. He approaches this venture by paradoxically working with the latest professional photographic camera equipment and Adobe Photoshop technology.
The first thing we are presented with in The Likeness Project is an artist’s statement showing a photographer struggling with his inner demons. He condemns his past glamorous portraiture career and is now ‘trying to capture people in a truer and more realistic way – attempting as much as possible not to alter reality …’. He further describes how in the beginning of photography the portrait was also known as a likeness, hence the title of this exhibition. The aim of this project, he says, is to invite the audience to search for ‘hidden nuances … that can possibly … give a deeper insight into our character.’
What Casha displays in this exhibition is a series of thirteen equal sized grey-scaled portraits of anonymous sitters juxtaposed by a copy of a dictionary’s definition of the word portraiture. Each perfectly squared panel is a fivefold showing the same person from different angles and in various light exposures. The upper diptych consists of opposing silhouettes, whilst the lower triptych is formed by two classical profiles, the three-quarter-view portrait and the frontal, shown conjointly with its inverted state. This inversion, which harks back to the vintage negative reel, has the ambience of spectrality. Casha very wisely places it in the centre of the lower set, giving prominence to the model’s Orphic gaze.
Casha allows us only a number to identify each sitter. This anonymity further conjures the viewer’s subconscious mind to recollect connections. One could associate friends, family members, acquaintances or perhaps archetypal figures from history or literature. For instance, the elongated features of the silhouetted images in portrait number ten remind me strongly of the Egyptian eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun. The melanchonic face of portrait number one’s ghostly negative image, stikes me as an Edgar Alan Poe’s Madeline falling into one of her cataleptic, deathlike trances.
There are many questions being asked in this exhibition.
Why are all these sitters presented in the same formulaic manner? Appearances are deceptive and to countenance for it, Casha creates a structured procedure that makes one feel these persons are being equated. Not in the Orwellian sense where people are language controlled but in what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre says in his existentialist essay Being and Nothingness, ‘All human activities are equivalent … and … all are on principle doomed to failure’.
Why is Casha showing us the dictionary’s definition of the word ‘portraiture’? Is he implying or connoting Plato’s concept of Forms, showing us that the idea is superior to the material world of constant flux? Reminiscent of Joseph Kosuth, Casha is highlighting the relation between language, image and referent thus inserting this exhibition in the terrain of conceptual art.
Marcel Proust wrote in his most prominent work In Search of Lost Time, ‘Habit is a second nature it keeps us in ignorance of the first, and is free of its cruelties and enchantments.’ Casha is surely not showing what we are habitually used to seeing in Maltese photography.