THE PORTRAIT IN THE AGE OF GENETIC MAPPING
Created at the end of the twentieth century, Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait explores issues of identity, the leitmotif of the portrait, by delving into the microcosm of the body where the instructions for the self are encrypted. This encodement of identity – made visible to the naked eye only through sophisticated instruments capable of high-resolution, microscopic detection and analysis- reveals itself in the forms of stained chromosomes (irregular x-shaped lozenge forms glowing at the tips, called telomeres, and at the waists, called centromeres), genes, and DNA sequences. Inextricably linked, the familiar external topography of the human face and body and the organic abstraction of the features of the human genome are two sides of one coin.
Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait challenges the traditional definition of the portrait, and revises our understanding of what it means to be revealed before the camera’s lens, by juxtaposing the visible and the invisible, the message and its embodied characteristics. One need only look at the powerful self-portraits painted by Picasso in his final years, where his face, painted with a last desperate energy, charts the diminishing force of vital code within, to know that the struggle of artists to reconcile external appearance with internal reality, the psychological with the physical, is not new.
Over the centuries, scientific interest in the human body has never waned, but it has changed its focus from exploring how the body was made, to how it worked, to its current all-encompassing preoccupation with how the body is programmed to appear and behave as it does. With the launching of the Human Genome Project, which aims to map and sequence the complete set of human chromosomes and their related genes, coupled with the availability of elaborate imaging systems capable of both the visualization and capture of these physical features, the concept of an artist producing a self-portrait partially mapped by genetic information is no longer out of reach. The duality of inside and outside can now be expressed with a previously unimagined degree of transparency.
Artists can play an important role as social mediators by introducing and interpreting through their work some of the complex, new ideas and possibilities to a general public. The drive for greater knowledge and for the invention of new tools by which to discover, record, and verify this knowledge appears to be part of the human impulse, with artists often being among the first to interpret the information and to adapt the images and techniques to their own ends.
Over the past 100 years, the camera used in conjunction with the telescope and microscope has been integral to ground-breaking scientific research, and the imagery it has produced and continues to produce still remains compellingly attractive to the eye of the artist. With great prescience Franccois Jean Dominique Arago, Director of the Paris Observatory, in his public announcement of August 19, 1839, about Daguerre’s discovery of the first stable and easily repeatable photographic process, alluded to the potential of combining these technologies, proposing that they might one day lead to a rational explanation for the origins of all living matter. Arrago’s announcement precipitated a great deal of excitement, leading almost immediately to the production of photomicrographs and astronomical views by artists and scientists alike.
Francis Galton’s attempt in the 1870s to arrive at identifiable social and racial types through the systematic manipulation of the portrait genre is relevant to this discussion of Gary Schneider’s exploration of his own identity only because of its historic connection to the examination of individual identity through the use of photography and not because of its conclusions. By using a method of printing single, composite portraits from many different negatives, Galton’s work was based on the belief that it was through external appearances that human identity could be analyzed and classified. Discredited now for the generalizations and stereotypes that it promoted, through the misguided discipline of eugenics, it marks a period in our history where neither the tools nor the knowledge, and, consequently, the imagination existed to even entertain the possibility that the locus of human identity might be locked deep down beneath the world of appearances.
It was the discovery of radiography in 1895 that would eventually and dramatically revolutionize the study of human biology, even though Galton’s idea that composites of human types could reveal some truth about the survival of the human species did not disappear immediately. In fact, it continued to be perpetuated for decades through montages of radiographs of human skulls, as radiography finally fulfilled the ideal of transparency that flap anatomy (drawings of naked bodies, composed with layered sections that could be lifrted to reveal the internal anatomical strucdture under the skin) and ecorches (was models of the human body with the skin partly flailed to expose internal anatomy) had tried so hard to achieve.
Over the next five to six decades developments in both radiography and molecular biology, coupled with new technologies, increasingly extended the capabilities of scientists to explore what exists beneath the visible surface of the body. Along with his assistants, W. Friedrich and P. Knipping, Max von Laue’s researched the wave nature of X rays which led in 1912 to discovery that X rays could diffracted and that the individual lattice structure of the crystal could be inferred. This allowed for the establishment of X-ray crystallography, which in turn made it possible for Rosalind Franklin and R. G. Gosling to capture on film a photographic trace of what was later interpreted as the double helix structure of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) crystal, the chemical which is responsible for genetic encodement. With these advances biological investigations have evolved from the study of the body and its organs to that of the body and its genome (the chemistry and structure of genetic encodement).
Like Robert Rauschenberg’s life-size print Booster from 1967, in which the artist has depicted himself from head to toe by vertically juxtaposing X-ray films of his body, naked except for his hobnailed boots, Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait is as much a portrait of our time as it is a glimpse of his uniqueness.
It is a portrait that demonstrates the struggle to reconcile the visible and the invisible and thereby raises new and central issues about the relationship between the biologically predetermined and socially conditioned in the creation and experience of the self. Inspired by the Human Genome Project, described as an “instruction book for a human being” and by the unfamiliar visual terrain that it charts, Schneider uses the details of his cells and fluoresced chromosomes, genes, and sequences of DNA, not as forensic evidence of identity, but as pointers to the self.
Genetic Self-Portrait comprises 55 platinum/palladium and toned gelatin silver prints, each exquisitely realized and scaled from an intimate 4 x 5” for the smallest Y chromosome, to a monumental 90 x 108” for enlargements of cells. In addition to the genetically coded elements, like the testis-determining gene SRY, pictured through autoradiography, that has the potential to identify his uniqueness, Schneider presents body parts, such as his hands, ears, eyes, hair, and teeth that can also be used to determine individuality. The imaging techniques range from the most primitive excitement of the film’s emulsion by direct contact with the body’s chemistry to the most complex processes involving cell propagation, DNA sequencing, and photography using sophisticated light and electron scanning microscopes and X-ray technology.
In determining the scope, sequencing, look, and meaning of this artwork, Schneider’s selection and organization of the images is very much that of the artist, as Lori Pauli notes in her essay. Just as Rauschenberg felt no compulsion to precisely line up the edges of the X-ray plates that picture his skeleton, Schneider chooses to invert the normal presentation of the karyotype (an ordered and full sequence of 46 chromosomes) form positive to negative images.
Also, by choosing to print the DNA sequences for the gene SRY in platinum/palladium, Schneider emphasizes the abstract, mosaic-like complexity and gemlike luminosity of the images over their informational content.
Whereas a forensic profile drawn from this material, and yielding an indisputable identification of Gary Schneider, would be made up of crisp, clean-edged, garishly colored sequences, inspiration for the nine-panel, gelatin silver enlargement of a buccal mucosa cell nucleus and mitochondria (taken from the inside of the cheek) is drawn as much from a tenth-century Chinese screen in the Metropolitan Museum as it is from its biological terrain. Far from attempting to make it a seamless image, Schneider repeats lines and shapes in the boldly separated squares of the grid, turning information into visual poetry. While such unrestrained indulgence in the beauty of one’s own features in a traditional self-portrait would solicit cries of narcissism, here the detachment of the process and abstract nature of its microscopic details seem to more than warrant this attention.
Curiously the images of the eyes and mouth, necessary components of a traditional portrait, contain an element of menace. We are not, after all, programmed like electronic security systems to respond to the hypnotic, unyielding orbs of the irises. Eyes are celebrated by us for their ability to relinquish the secrets of the soul. And the mouth – both a conduit for speech and erogenous zone – appear here with a mock smile as a reminder of our mortality, like the grim reaper that accompanies a skeleton in an anatomical drawing from the past. The hands by contrast are open and vibrant. They are the hands of the artist, flowing at the finger tips, just like the chromosomes tagged for gene identification glow at the telomeres, serving as a reminder of the vitality, chemistry, and the craft behind the images.
When the Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele pictured himself naked before the mirror, as he did many times, he confronted us with human volatility – his and ours. Genetic Self-Portrait on the other hand is an experience of a different kind of vulnerability, one that is both individual and social. We have moved a long way from the nineteenth-century photographs comparing primate and human skeletons to knowing today that we share some 98 percent of our genetic information with chimpanzees. We also now know that 99 percent of the genetic instructions are the same for all humans and that individual differences reside in a mere 1 percent of our genetic blueprint. Genetic Self-Portrait prompts us to think about science, and about art, and also to reflect on the individual behind the portrait. It also reminds us of our commonality and our uniqueness, of our history and our future, and of our responsibility to handle difference and sameness justly – in essence, of what it means to be human.
Curator of Photographs
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
WARM HANDS, COLD EYE: GARY SCHNEIDER’S DISSECTION OF THE SELF-PORTRAIT
The complex act of portraying the self is what informs most, if not all, self-portraits. As human beings, we are naturally curious about each other, and we mainly use our faces, unique and individualized, to distinguish between one person and another. In the nineteenth century scientists such as Johann Caspar Lavater believed that by studying facial features – a discipline called physiognomy – one could determine the moral character of a moment and remain inscribed there over the course of our lives. But is the face the only point of access in terms of understanding the individual? How much insight into a person’s character can be gleaned from looking at a portrait and what part of the body best represents the self. These questions have inspired and challenged artists for generations. Should an individual be portrayed with one or with several images? Is it even possible for our characters or personalities to be visually represented?
Gary Schneider has explored issues of identity since he began making self-portraits in 1975. Abandoning a conventional approach to portraiture, he is constantly rethinking, reworking, and pushing the parameters of what constitutes a photographic portrait. In 1996 Schneider was commissioned to make photographs in response to some of the revolutionary discoveries that were emerging from the Human Genome Project. Seizing the opportunity to combine a few of his long-standing passions (including biology and self-portraiture), Schneider embarked upon his most recent work, an installation of 55 photographs titled Genetic Self-Portrait. In consultation with physicians and geneticists, Schneider culled diagnostic and forensic photographs – including X rays, radiographs, photograms, and micrographs – of specimens from various parts of his own body. He tended to select images that were visually eloquent rather than the images that had been “adjusted” in order to provide the technician with clear and accurate information. In a photograph of sperm, for instance, a luminous oval shape appears to be suspended on a fragile thread of beaded light and to hover against a black ground. With an appearance closer to the botanical photographs by Karl Blossfeldt than to a medical document, Schneider’s interpretation of these “diagnostic portraits” lifts them from the prosaic to the realm of the poetic. In another example Schneider has used the photographs of his eyes tin which the so-called windows of the soul are unfathomable black holes that absorb rather than provide information. Each of the scientific images selected was re-interpreted by Schneider according to its particular set of aesthetic concerns. All of the images were then enlarged to a size so different from the originals that the elements presented become almost unrecognizable.
Some of Schneider’s earlier work – specifically a series of photographs from 1987 titled Entomologicals – laid the groundwork for his use of scientific images for Genetic Self-Portrait. He discovered a cache of glass plate negatives depicting insect specimens seen through the microscope and transformed these forgotten and disused objects into mysterious and even vaguely ominous images that are at times breathtaking in their surreal beauty. The large photographic prints display oversized insects that loom from their milky-white surroundings and float in the netherworld of the microscopic slide. Appropriated slides of another group of biological specimens were used for the second part of this series that was created between 1992 and 1993, and in this body of work Schneider was able to hone his skills at extracting new meaning from what were originally purely scientific images.
For Genetic Self-Portrait, Schneider also incorporated photographs that were influenced by his celebrated series called Handprints. It was in creating this 1993 series that Schneider began to delve into the meaning and emotional power of the portrait and the self-portrait. Using two photograms of his own hands, Schneider crafted each print into a metaphoric or commemorative portrait of friends and family members who, for a variety of reasons including death, could not be photographed. For each Handprint, Schneider pressed the palm of each hand, flecked with the sparkle of sweat, directly against a film plate. The film was then exposed to light and developed. His use of photogram (a process that in this case might be more accurately described as an “autothermohydrogram” since it is the heat and sweat of his hands that react to the emulsion when placed on a film plate) is a direct and extremely tactile method of making photographic prints in which no camera or lens is used. Schneider’s use of hands was inspired by the handprints found on the walls of the caves of Lascaux. Hands are laden with associations. They are guarantors of integrity and foretellers of fortunes, and their intricate and unique variations from a kind of map of character and destiny.
All of Schneider’s portraits, whether from the Handprints series or from a group of portrait heads made from 1989 to the present, are bound together by an underlying theme of intimacy. In the Handprints photographs the message of a primal and intimate connection is symbolized through the act of touching as the artist’s own palm and fingers are in direct contact with film emulsion. The physical union of the photographer and his medium becomes the metaphor for the past relationships that are remembered and honored by this series. For his portraits of the faces of friends and family, Schneider devised a method of posing the sitters by asking them to lie down while a small beam of light was shone over their faces, in sessions that could take as much as half an hour to complete. This meticulous and painstaking approach to portrait-making resulted in some of the most extraordinary images of the human face ever made with the use of a camera. The photographs from this series are titled simply with the sitter’s first name – Helen or Mirriam, for example. These titles not only refer to the sitter’s close acquaintance to the artist, but they also obscure the specific identity of the particular person. The large (36 x 29”) prints glow with a gentle light that both highlights their features and seems to be the primary material of these ghostly visages that swim up to the surface of the photograph from pools of deep shadow. Unlike the sitters in thousands of nineteenth-century studio portraits, the people in Schneider’s photographs do not have the vacant stare that was the result of waiting out a long exposure time. Instead, there is a wistful and even dreamlike expression in their eyes that is reinforced by the softened contours of their facial features. Like Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of an intimate circle of friends and family done in the 1860s and 1870s, Schneider’s evocative portraits seem to uncannily defy the specificity of the very individuals they represent.
In a series titled John in Sixteen Parts, from 1996, Schneider once again challenged notions of what to expect in a photographic portrait. As the title suggests, the subject John is represented by sixteen photographs of various parts of his face. The title also hints at a cinematic conception of the self - a kind of portrait made over time and space. The analogy to film is not too wide off the mark since Schneider has worked with film and the stage and considers the very act of photographing to be very much an act of performance.
Like a puzzle that refuses to be solved, John in Sixteen Parts invites, and then resists summation in the conventional sense. The facial features that fill the carefully crafted prints do not fit together in a way we might expect. Displayed together in a grid-like formation on a wall, the photographs from this series have important connections to the work done for Genetic Self-Portrait. Both series share a point of view that is at once intensely intimate and what might be described, at the same time, as clinically detached. In John in Sixteen Parts and in Genetic Self-Portrait the face has been visually dissected and is seen from a variety of angles. The two series probe the basic dilemma of how it is we come to understand the “true” nature of a person – is this knowledge of self, best understood by close acquaintance (or even the person themselves), or is it more clearly seen by the neutral stranger whose own history is not tied in some way to the subject in question? Like the doctor who searches for morbidity through a careful examination of sections of the body, the viewers of Schneider’s John in Sixteen Parts and Genetic Self-Portrait sift through the evidence of discrete and objective parts in a quest to understand the self being presented. Schneider’s artistic enterprise reveals that our grasp on what is at the root of identity has always been, and will always be, tantalizingly elusive.
While creating the installation Genetic Self-Portrait, Schneider was engaged in what he describes as “an uncharted journey into the unknown.” In fact, at the outset of the project, his supporters expressed some concern that the artist might not like what such an intimate investigation might reveal. The “new biology” has allowed us to cross unprecedented boundaries: for example, geneticists can now identify certain markers for various patterns. The scientific approach to the portrait, adopted by Schneider for Genetic Self-Portrait, has allowed him to eradicate all references to human emotion and personal experience. Intimacy is implicit and is at the very core of the meaning of this work but is couched in the language of a scientific document. What we are left with at the end of Gary Schneider’s amazing “journey” is a photographic portrait unlike any other and one that points to future portraits that may reveal not only who the people represented are but also what might become of them.
Assistant Curator of Photographs
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
PORTRAIT WITHOUT THE CAMERA FACE
Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles
In midwinter 1996 Gary Schneider, a photographer who has always enjoyed pushing the envelope of innovation, was offered the chance to create a new body of work inspired by the Human Genome Project. At the time, Schneider, who was born in 1954 in South Africa and emigrated in the late 1970s, had only a basic understanding of the Human Genome Project. He rightly associated it with some kind of international race among biologists.
That race had begun after the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. It had picked up speed in the 1980s when machines were invented that can rapidly synthesize DNA so it can be used I many experiments, and when courts made decisions that enabled those who found particular genes to patent them. Since then scientists have rushed to identify every gene on each of our 23 pairs of chromosomes. The goal, to map all of the human genes, is an ambitious as Mendeleev’s attempt in the late nineteenth century to devise a system of classifying the elements, which resulted in the Periodic Table of the Elements.
The kind of descriptive cataloging that the Human Genome Project suggests flowed naturally into Schneider’s interest in portraiture. He had then just completed a multipart photographic portrait, John in Sixteen Parts, which includes close-ups of each of John’s eyes – with and without glasses. He was also making photograms of hand prints directly on film without a camera. After contact printing the film onto paper, the life-size images are reminiscent of crime scene photographs of hands dipped in blood, so perhaps without realizing it, Schneider was already exploring the use of scientific image-making techniques. Because this new project offered him access to some of the best biology labs in the United States, and the scientists who use machines like electron microscopes and nano technology to explore life on a microscopic level, Schneider took this opportunity to create a new kind of portrait – one that could go far beyond the surface – what he would think of as a diagnostic self-portrait.
Portraiture and identity have been linked from the grand oil paintings of popes and kings that hang in museums to today’s mundane, but official, driver’s licenses. In the mid-nineteenth century photography dramatically changed the nature of portraiture, making it more accessible to the new middle class and more accurate, in its own way, than collected information, especially in the need to establish identity. With the discovery of X rays in 1895, the remains of individuals could be identified by interior anatomical differences, including dental work and healed injuries, as well as external markers such as the shapes of noses or the shades of skin. The last years of the nineteenth century saw the adoption of finger printing as yet another way of establishing identity. In the twentieth century blood typing became routine, and today courts are accepting DNA evidence.
Schneider’s interest in portraiture is rooted in the nineteenth century, inspired by the great Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. When she began to take pictures, he explains, the camera was new, and even though her subjects had to hold still a long time, they were still naïve, their faces open windows. Today, in contrast, even tiny children put on their “camera faces” when they see a photographer. Combining the scientist’s tools and tutelage with his own photographic methods and practices, Schneider considered how, with access to these Laboratories, he might reinvent the portrait. He wanted to capture aspects of identity free from the “camera face.”
In 1996, he was still reeling from his mother’s lost battle to lung cancer. He thought of his genetic connection to her, and with the help of scientists he began to harvest images from his own body, which, of course, are connected to hers. He started with Dr. Dorothy Warburton who in her laboratory at Babies Hospital at New York Presbyterian, used a fluorescent-light microscope. Together they selected an image of a tumor-suppressor gene on chromosome 11, which he later divided into four panels. The actual chromosome is three and a half microns long, but he enlarged the image so that each panel is more than two and a half feet in length. A similar gene in his mother may have failed to function. The images he created from his own tumor-suppressor gene became more abstract as he worked with them in the darkroom, but their personal significance as a possible inherited trait was always concrete. Schneider understood that in the process of making this new work he might discover something in his genes that could affect his life in a very real way, such as finding a tumor or a heredity disease, but he was determined to face those risks acknowledging that art is part of life.
Dorothy Warburton’s laboratory was the beginning of an 18-month odyssey. Schneider had no plan. He simply followed his sense of wonder, allowing the emerging self-portrait to grow organically. Warburton introduced him to a colleague, Dr. Stephen Brown, who made a DNA sequence of his testis-determining gene, SRY. This gene is located on the Y chromosome, the chromosome that defines human males. At about this time Schneider and his father, descendants of the ancient Jewish tribe Kohane, were delighted to read in the news about a scientific-historical project that traced by use of the Y chromosome the Kohanim back at least 3,000 years to the fertile crescent in the MIddle East, part of which is now Israel. The new genetics identified the Schneiders as links in a multi-millennial evolutionary chain.
Schneider respects the perfectionist zeal that Drs. Warburton, Brown, and the seven other scientists he worked with displayed. “This is a collaboration,” he explains. “I really feel a debt to her and to the others who helped me. I wanted to make sure that my interpretation of their images was scientifically accurate. And it is. I chose the images for their scientific value as well as for their poetic resonance.”
Genetic Self-Portrait includes some incredibly small objects only visible through scanning electron microscopes, and some that are life-sized, like his teeth, but visible only through X-ray photography. Scale in the orthodox scientific sense, is totally irrelevant to Schneider’s aesthetic. He has magnified the five-inch squares of his dental panorama only five times, while enlarging the tiny five-micron-long sperm many fold to a majestic eight inches. This portrait is no didactic “powers of ten” demonstration of relative size in the biological world, a demonstration in which a camera moves closer or farther away, always ten times larger or smaller than the previous picture. Schneider explains that he enlarged the specimens and images so that “each has its own presence.”
Equally important to Schneider is a sense of wonder. For many years he has returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to sit in front of a thousand-year-old Chinese landscape painting. It has never failed to draw him in. When he selected an enlarged image of a buccal mucosa cell from his mouth, he anticipated a good, clear picture of the cell including a nucleus and mitochondria. Yet the image he obtained startled him with its beauty. Enlarged and displayed in nine panels, it is the biggest single image in the series – and also the most microscopic. It brought him back to the Chinese landscape. “When I started looking at the buccal mucosa image, I realized that it, too, was a landscape.” And like that other landscape, it leaves him without a spatial point of view, simply floating inside an extraordinary place beyond the scale of ordinary people.
Yet midway through what started out as a diagnostic self-portrait, Schneider hit a dead end. He realized that what really interested him in the Human Genome Project was its emotional potential, especially the question of how to prepare himself for these new kinds of identification. At this point he talked to Dr. George Carmody, a population geneticist, who suggested that Schneider take another look at the hand prints he had been making since 1993. They reveal the delicate swirls at the fingertips and the heels of the palms. Hand prints are the earliest images in history, the most common symbol of individual identity, hand overlaying hand, pressed onto dark cave walls over eons in Europe and Australia. These ancient peoples must have known, as we know, that each print is unique. When Schneider looked at his hand prints again, he realized they were a part of the self-portrait he had been piecing together.
With the completion of his Genetic Self-Portrait, Gary Schneider has created a totally private portrait made up of very different kinds of images. In the process of constructing an extended view of himself, he has allowed us to consider the infinite possibilities and combinations at the disposal of all of us as we struggle to define who we are.
Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles
Author of Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century