Representation and Slowing the Infinite Scroll
Mary F.E. Ebeling
It hardly needs mentioning that there exists an ever-present flow of photographs humming in the background of everyday life. A digital amalgam of the notable and the nameless, the sensational and shameful—that flashes by at the speed of light and slows down only momentarily when snapped into a hierarchical grid of importance, determined by Google’s search result algorithms. Sometimes we hold this flow in our hands when we touch our fingers to a screen and pause the digital stream to have a closer look at the face, to gaze directly into the eyes, of another. The scale of digital photographs is enormous; in 2015 it was estimated that every two minutes people take more photographs than existed 150 years ago, and about 1.8 billion images are uploaded every day (Eveleth 2015).
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made the decision to remove all access to its machine-learning dataset 80 million Tiny Images, after an audit revealed that the millions of digital photographs which featured humans, in particular the ones of women, people of color, or people with disabilities, had been categorized and labeled with violently racist, misogynistic, homophobic or other slurs. These images, of course, were hand-coded by humans to teach an algorithm—a machine—how to recognize the eyes, the noses, lips and cheeks, the faces of other human beings. But not, however, to see or empathize with them. With the ever-present flow of images, how can drawing a portrait of a human account for the bristling politics of digital images and representation? Under the regime of lens-and screen-based imagery, how can a hand-drawn portrait alter how we see each other?
The photographer and writer Teju Cole says of the photographic portrait, that it is “an open door. It can remind us of our ethical duty to the other,” and humanizes the subject that exceeds the control of the viewer (Cole 2018, pg. 14). While portraiture in Western painting has tended to narrowly represent the powerful unilaterally, he notes that the photographic portrait is always a tripartite collaboration between the portraitist, the subject and the viewer, with representation and recognition undulating in a closed circuit of power between the three. How does the intervention of the hand, a mark of graphite on the tooth of paper, force the artist and the viewer to become intimate with the tensions inherent between representation and dignity of the subject?
Each of the one hundred graphite-on-paper portraits in Mark Stockton: 100 People demands, perhaps not a direct answer to these questions, but opens a door to the viewer to stop and have a conversation, an engagement, to come to some sort of understanding. The eyes engage and demand intimacy with the viewer, and you cannot walk by any of these portraits without meeting that demand. The portraits begin a dialogue with the viewer. About personhood, about the dangers of representation, about how the complexities of a person’s life, their humanness, can be flattened by the digital photograph.
Stockton notes that one of his primary concerns in his drawing practice is what he calls “the concept of resolution,” or how, through the insertion of fine, hand-drawn detail and the time that this precision takes, he creates a “visual alternative to mass-production…[by using] the handmade mark, not in opposition to technology, but in conjunction with it. Photography in the digital present offers a more in-depth understanding of an image, where explorations of digital variations can establish a complex understructure of gridding, value and contour studies.”
Michael Taussig, an anthropologist concerned with the decolonization of the commodity fetish, and equally, with Walter Benjamin’s consideration of the lost aura in the technological reproduction of images, says drawing is a “squint-eyed view” of the empirical that “intervenes in the reckoning of reality, in ways … that photography do[es] not” (Taussig 2011, 12-13). Stockton’s drawings deliver the lost aura of digital photographic portraiture back to the digits of the artist’s hand—and thus breaking the portrait free from the hierarchies of the oil painting, the photograph, the web and social media, to give it back to the body, embodied in the reflected light as it bounces off white paper, and beams directly onto the eye’s retina.
The 100 People drawings are also about scale, both of mass and dimension. The petabytes of online photographs have been winnowed down to a tight selection of one hundred portraits of the notable and influential. The scale is at the level of the human body, with every portrait blown up to the size of the human face, drawn proportionately and hung to meet the eyes of the viewer. The scale is also one of time and the history of photographic portraiture—with the first “selfie” taken by Robert Cornelius in his Philadelphia studio in 1839, to one of the 160 known portraits taken of Frederick Douglass, to Robert Mapplethorpe, Susan Sontag, and Timnit Gerbu—all have something to say about the power of the photographic portrait and digital images.
The digital images that the 100 People portraits are based on also had to meet particular criteria. Every drawing is derived from a photographic portrait, where the subject is looking directly, dead-on (or at times, three-quarters) into the lens. Another significant criterion was that each subject depicted in the source photograph was chosen for their influence, in some way, on Stockton or on his friends and family. Of each, he asked the same question, “If you could choose a portrait for a national portrait gallery, who do you think should be included?” The choices include musicians, artists, writers, politicians, activists, filmmakers, scientists, social media influencers, and athletes, most of whom would be recognized in the attention economy of online images.
When I entered the gallery during my initial visit to 100 People, the portrait of Alice Neel was the first image to greet me in the long line of graphite drawings that snake around the walls. At first, I didn’t recognize her. Stockton’s portrait of Neel is slow and precise, hyperreal with detailed strokes in the hair, smudges of skin marked by time, and crinkled, bold lines around the eyes engaging directly with my own. I had never seen a photographic portrait of Neel before, and any spark of recognition for me in looking at Stockton’s drawing of her would only be possible if she were rendered in the familiar and swift brushstrokes of creamy blue and green hues that Neel captured of her own eighty-year-old, naked female body in her 1980 “Self Portrait.” A slowing of time is visible in this and all of the other ninety-nine portraits; a temporality of the hand and the eye making contact with the materiality of paper, a deliberate disruption of the usual radiant light of screens. The swiftness of the lens or the digital scroll sputters and slows in each mark of graphite in Stockton’s portraits.
On my next visit, the drawing of Neel had been moved from the first spot and replaced with Stockton’s portrait of Alice Wong, the author and disability rights activist who founded the Disability Visibility Project (DVP). In fact, most of the one hundred portraits had been shuffled, a reordering based on Stockton’s interactions with viewers, who make suggestions and recommendations on which portrait should be given more or less prominence in terms of ordering and encountering. Despite Stockton’s efforts to eliminate a hierarchy of images, somehow one is reasserted, over and over again. When I asked Stockton about the ordering of the line of portraits, that in a sense it also creates an ordering of importance, a hierarchy of visibility, Stockton said that if he could, he would hang all one hundred portraits in a circle rather than a line.
The drawings in 100 People are an invitation to flatten the hierarchies of portraiture. Each portrait makes a demand for recognition. Some portraits are instantly recognizable to me: Thurgood Marshall, Dolores Huerta, Kathleen Hanna, Stacey Abrams, Dolly Parton, James Baldwin, Malala Yousafzai, Octavia Butler, Christa McAuliffe, and Sun Ra. But there are so many others that I don’t recognize, such as Alice Neel or Moxie Marlinspike, Robert Oppenheimer, Duke Kahanamoku, and Paul Stamets.
Stockton dips into the infinite flow of digital images made of pixelated light and rematerializes portraits of celebrity, notoriety and influence. He slows down the stream to fix the eyes of the subject directly to the eyes of the viewers. And you cannot pass one of the portraits without your eyes snapping into place with the eyes of the other. With 100 People, Stockton intervenes the mark, the hand of the artist to draw a certain intimacy, a certain thing-ness and reality on the digital photographic portraiture to draw attention and acknowledgment to the tensions between representation, recognition and the politics of the image in the era of online photographs.
This tension between recognition and representation crackles in each portrait and is amplified by Stockton’s methodological and embodied drawing—where he squints, drafts, and marks the subject’s face into hyperfocus. Their eyes catch your own, they beckon for you to walk up and get close, nose-to-nose, eye-to-eye with the lushness and sheen of the smudge of graphite on the tooth of the rag paper. There is a sensuous intimacy to the encounter with the portraits that simply doesn’t exist in the infinite scroll of images on an iPhone. This intimacy is engineered by Stockton. He never places glass between the viewer and he meticulously measures and hangs each portrait so that they form an un-broken chain of graphite eyes that encounter the fleshy eyes of viewers. Eye to eye. Unlike the digital photographs that are themselves the embodiments of light and glass, the portraits that comprise 100 People, are rematerialized objects that beg to be touched, to be breathed on, to be in communion and conversation with. 100 People slows down the flow of digital pictures of people to the scale of the human.
Cole, Teju. 2018. “There’s Less to Portraits Than Meets the Eye, and More,” The New York Times Magazine. August 26, 2018, pg. 14.
Eveleth, Rose. 2015. “How Many Photographs of You Are Out There In the World?” The Atlantic. November 2, 2015. Accessed on February 27, 2022: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/how-many-photographs-of-you-are-out-there-in-the-world/413389/
Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in My Field Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.