Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. – Walker Evans
The big black hat encircled by red marigold flowers sways between the figures of death on the balconies around. Its wearer, a lofty calaca (skeleton) – eyes hollow, a tubby cigar, the bare scaffolding of a human carcass – slowly moves through the swarming streets of Mexico City during Día de Muertos. Soon, a sinister figure of flesh and blood appears from the wrong end of the crowd and rounds a man and a woman without the knowledge of who they are and why they are there or that the suit he is wearing isn’t going to stay that white much longer.
The eye goes to this couple who start walking against the flow of the bony fancy-dress marchers; through a gate, a flight of stairs and the elevator up to agent Estrella’s room 327 at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México – from Mexico City to Pinewood Studios in London and then back again in one long phenomenal tracking shot – where the cloak-and-dagger nature of the mission makes the 007 moult, and then he just as quickly unloads himself from the rooftop so that the neighbouring building and its denizens are blown to chipotle (and here of course is where the massive beauty fades and the story derails into usual Bond stuff).
For master cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the Director of Photography for this Spectre (2015) movie, film is “an experience not very different to music”. Someone who has most certainly responded to the remarkable musicality of his films, and especially the musty glossiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), isDragana Kusoffsky Maksimović who is the new Director of Sven-Harrys (Art Museum) at Vasaparken in Stockholm housed in a five-storey structure sheathed in an amalgamation of metals with a Goldfinger tint.
“It could have been a fantastic exhibition if we had invited a really good photo expert, there are lots of those who would have done something extraordinary. But I wanted the contrast between photography and moving pictures, and easiest for me was to start with some directors who I find interesting. I began with the cinema and what kind of story there was to tell. However, when I started to think about it, it was the film photographer that was dead on target here. And there was no other name than Hoyte van Hoytema. That’s it,” she says with a smile in a room jammed with photographs of people, both from the walls and mounted on a zigzag course of floor stands, and every one of them is eyeing us up.
Here’s Looking at You is Kusoffsky Maksimović’s first show under her own direction and it is really something, a feast for the eyes, and more, though she claims that it was a hair’s breadth from failure, that the exhibition almost did not happen. “A little bit, yeah,” van Hoytema fills in. “When Dragana called me, I was not really ready to do something like this. I replied that I would do an exhibition if I had a good idea, and I hoped that I wouldn’t get a good idea because I had a lot of work and a lot of things to do. I woke up the next morning and I had a kind of idea – damn! [he laughs] – so at that moment I took it upon me, and it is a very big treat for a photographer to get access to such an incredible and rich collection of photographs.”
Dragana Kusoffsky Maksimović reveals that one of her intentions with Sven-Harrys is to bring out photography, but that this show arrived by chance when she was invited to a dinner at the Moderna Museet in the Swedish capital. After the warm thrill of confusion of finding her name all wrong on the seating card she realised that she had been placed next to Dragana Vujanović Östlind, Chief Curator at the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg, which soon enough accepted to make their group of works available for Stockholm. “And I can assure you, it was not easy to download three thousand photographs from the Hasselblad Collection into a PDF file and email that to Hoyte. And he actually went through each and every photo. One day he was in Latin America, another day in North America, and next time he was in Europe. So to be able to do this is extraordinary.”
“I think it is amazing that he starts from the eyeline because it is Hoyte’s eyes that I am after,” Kusoffsky Maksimović continues. The curator of the show explains that eyelines means how the eyes are relating to the lens.“In the beginning I tried to find a connection to my own job and what images, still photos, do to me and I think I found some parallels very much related to photography language. And one of those parallels, and one of the most important tools in my work, is eyelines. As a cinematographer, eyelines is an extremely important tool in the way you tell stories for instance. It has everything to do with where you put the camera in relation to the actors, where you tell your actors to look, and with that: what do these eyelines mean, how do they empower the story points? And ultimately: how do they connect the viewer with the filmmaker?”
There are pencil marks here and there which level a great number of the eyes in the show at 152.4 centimetres from the floor. “There are many different numbers and every country is different. But let’s say that this is an average eyeline, and so if you stand in front of a picture your eyes will be at the same height as the eyes in those images. In film, if you put the camera higher or lower, it tells very different things and you can make a person stronger or weaker or sadder, or disconnect with somebody or create mystery,” says Hoyte van Hoytema. “I figured out somehow that this is a kind of experiment, even for me. I am just very curious about finding and organising photos in terms of eyelines, and putting them together in a story order and let them speak to us as a whole, as a collection.”
The one hundred and ninety-seven photographic portraits in Here’s Looking at You would blaze for just 8.2 seconds if they were frames in a film – as James Monaco writes in How to Read a Film: Movies, Media and Beyond, “There is something magical and intoxicating about the frozen moment of a still work of art that captures life in full flight” – and they are pictures taken by as many as ninety-eight photographers. “Most of these pictures are iconic and powerful and extremely interesting in their own right. It is crazy to have so many important photos in a small space like this, and it is a really cool experiment as well,” says van Hoytema in a cheerful tone. “I kind of feel that I have to apologise to every photographer in here because I cannot treat each work with the kind of respect it deserves. But, you know, this very much works for me in a group context.”
He is absolutely right. There is a telling behind-the-scenes account from the filming of The Planet of the Apes in Arizona in 1967, where the actors who played the socially differentiated gorillas (workers and soldiers), chimps (scientists and intellectuals) and orangutans (political leaders) additionally behaved and segregated themselves according to their Platonian ape castes in the canteen. Here’s Looking at You has its Richard Avedons, Irving Penns and Yngve Baums, both among the photographers and the photographed, though what this show delivers with bravura is a confident and affirmative perception of our individual and collective humanity – and without a trace of the highfalutin too-muchery of Steichen’s The Family of Man (which was presented by MoMA in 1955 and toured the world for eight years).
Robert Frank was jailed in Dixieland for a few days in 1955 for the un-American business of just looking when he was working with his Leica on The Americans (his classic published in France in 1958). That sort of preposterous scrutiny has of course been cultivated by the Thought Police ever since the 1970s. In his book What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, Paul Verhaeghe describes how “Hegel traced the origin of self-consciousness back to the gaze of the other. It is through that gaze, monitoring or loving, that we know that we exist. The word ‘respect’ is very important here: it literally means ‘the art of looking back at’, re-spicere.”
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues in Staring: How We Look that “whether they are a challenge or a burden, stares do not necessarily make one a victim; rather, they can make one a master of social interaction” and she speaks about the great benefits of photographic portraits: “They grant us more than permission to stare; they use the clout of high art to transform our staring from a breach of etiquette or an offensive intrusion into an art of appreciation. These portraits enable visual pilgrimages of deliberate contemplation that might be scuttled on a face-to-face encounter on the street. The invitation to look that a portrait offers precludes our skittish staring and instead allows us to look deep and long into these unfamiliar faces made strangely familiar.”
“We are often shameless in the way we allow ourselves to share in other people’s eyes,” says van Hoytema. The first wall in the show is like a bulwark against immoderate peepers. The people in these nineteen pictures are all turning their backs on us. Flanking them on the left is a wall full of people with their eyes turned to the right, and then vice versa on the opposite side. The sheer number of pictures to process has made the curator look at this show as a kind of “thesis”. “I think it works in quantities, the more the better,” he states. “You can for yourself decide to get to know the people in this exhibition, observe them and take them in, and you see that you get a very different kind of connection to a photograph.”
The panoply of people and their eyes continues on every floor at Sven-Harrys. The fourth wall of looking straight into the camera is broken in the next room with the big windows towards Vasaparken as a green screen to the show. It was in this park that the police helicopter crashed in Sjöwall–Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man which director Bo Widerberg in 1976 turned into one of the greatest Swedish masterpieces of all times, The Man on the Roof. Astrid Lindgren wrote all of her famous children’s books in the house next to Sjöwall–Wahlöö’s fictitious police killer. She is one of the many, many individuals in here who stare, pry and – maybe, hopefully – eavesdrop on us.
“I was kind of hoping that by depriving and then giving you the eyes, you will get some sense of understanding of the mechanism of looking,” explains Hoyte van Hoytema. “And I have a feeling that if you keep going to the eyes, your initial connection with these photos is very naked, pure and intimate, and that is why I felt it would be nice to set it up like this and that is why we have images all over the place so nobody is able to step away. Everywhere you look there will be people staring at you, and they are engaging with you, and they will share some intimacy with you. Of course, this is all theory, but when I walk through this room after envisioning this in my head, I kind of feel connected to the people. And the other thing is that I feel a little bit stared at, which is a good thing. Normally you are always on the winning side and the balance is very uneven, right? But with so many eyes on you I felt the pictures were becoming a little more ‘empowered’ as a whole.”
A picture of George Bush Sr is a perfect example of how this show works and how well it works, and it is from Avedon’s series The Family for Rolling Stone magazine (issue 224) in 1976. In this venture, Avedon refused to say a word to any of the sixty-nine people of power that he portrayed, and lurched around in his studio just staring forcefully at his subjects while catching that spirit of uncertainty in an eight-by-ten-inch camera. Bush doesn’t look like a nobody, he looks like a somebody, like the rest in here. In her photobook Couples and Loneliness (1998), Nan Goldin laments that “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” And yet, Here’s Looking at You shows us again that there is a sorcerous quality to the best photographic images of our fellow human beings. Great photographers do not steal our souls, they capture the perpetuity of human wonder and frivolity. Us.
Compare this to Lina Mannheimer’s atomised documentary Mating (2019) in which the young man Edvin and the young woman Naomi filmed themselves for a whole year and provided the absent director with unlimited access to their Me-Myself-and-I canteens on social media.“What a disappointing 21stcentury this has been so far,” David Bowie told the BBC in June 2002. “I had personally really quite high expectations about the future. I had no idea it would sort of capitulate into this awful mess, and this dreadful feeling of an involuntary kind of lack of ability to be able to do anything about this impending possible disastrous series of consequences, which, you know, one has so many suspicions about what are the real reasons and the real causes to them. It’s not a pleasant way to live.”
The last space at the top contains only seven pictures and van Hoytema calls it “a kind of relaxation room after you have taken all these eyes in”. What these people have in common is that they withhold themselves from us as viewers. The human brain has honed its skills to process its verdict on a new face in fifty milliseconds but these people are hiding like elephants when they are happy.
“Here’s looking at you” is the famous line from Casablanca (1942). It was used in another film with Bogart ten years earlier, Three on a Match, when Mike (Lyle Talbot) seeks to woo Ann Dvorak’s character Vivian with a martini and a cheer:
He: “Well, here’s looking at you.”
She: “At me?”
He: “Yeah! And liking it too!”
Here’s Looking at You curated by Hoyte van Hoytema at Sven-Harrys (Art Museum) in Stockholm through May 19, 2019.