Splayed out before me are 16 photographic print-outs of the same human face. I’ve been carrying them around in my bag for a while, tucked away in a clear plastic sleeve, and the image on top has been peering out at me for months now.
They’re a little obsessive: always the same face, sometimes the exact same pose but never much different and always on the verge of dissolving.
The obsessiveness and the urge toward obliteration suggest to my English major mind a story of futility that Kafka or Beckett might have written: A writer withdraws, locks herself away, to accomplish one last thing: to write the sentence that will nail it all down.
The sentence can be long, and it can be syntactically complex, but it must be only one sentence, one thought that explains it all.
At the end of her ordeal, the writer stares out a window. Strewn around her—on the table before her, on the floor—lie the discards, her only product.
The pictures I’ve spread out before me—all from Frank Rodick’s Untitled Selves series—are akin to those discards: what is left of the struggle to explain, to capture, to nail it all down.
1. There you feel free
Crossing over to the island, things fall away. The ties that bind loosen and I become less of what I was onshore. Just what moment the letting go takes place is unknowable. The process, like most dissolution, happens in bits.
But you will know it has happened because, once you make landfall, you are different. You feel free.
On the trip over, I half-think about these photographs.
When I saw Rodick’s earlier set of self-portraits—these based on a childhood snapshot—I flashed on those Hubble images as though the child were a star cluster forming. Or breaking apart.
Now, though, he has entered adulthood, and the photos have the blunt look of an ID photo: straight-on, brusque, indifferent.
Later, back-floating in the island’s waters, I am carried by the swell of waves. The water is cold but the sun is warm on my face. I hear nothing but the lapping of stones against the beach. As my mind dissolves into the cold water and the warm sun and the murmuring stones, more of life drops away, and I begin to imagine what it would be simply to be.
I think about what it must feel like to make these self-portraits—images of oneself in the act of vanishing, the flesh melting away.
2. Compare and Contrast
Just three years after the invention of photography, a provincial French doctor began what would become his life’s work: a series of electrophysiological experiments to map the expressions of the human face.
Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne drew on decades of electrical experimentation on the dead, most famously, Luigi Galvani’s on frogs and most notoriously, Giovanni Aldini’s on the corpse of George Foster, hanged for murder in 1803.*
* A contemporary description of Aldini’s experiment reads: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
But where Aldini was aiming to reanimate the dead, Duchenne had a more modest—and more realistic—goal: to chart scientifically the “grammar and orthography” of the expressions of the human face.
To do so, he applied electrical currents to specific muscles or muscle groups and, to document the results, he employed the new medium of photography for his subjects, he turned to several patients at the Salpetriere Hospital, prime among them a partially blind young woman and a toothless old man.
These scenes can be taken, more or less, at face value. Depictions of specific expressions—sadness, reflection, pain, terror, and on to a total of 13 identified by Duchenne—they do, again more or less, what he said they were doing: they map the way musculature creates the ephemera of facial expressions.
Today, Duchenne is credited with kickstarting the field of neurology (he influenced Darwin and taught Charcot, who in his own turn taught Freud). That said, his photographs, which retain their power to shock, hardly seem scientific.
It’s not simply the tortured rictus grin or vaguely sinister “feeble false laughter” that unnerves. They also hint at something beyond, something more mysterious that transpires outside the frame. In each, a disembodied hand intrudes to apply the probes that trigger the grin and the feeble laugh. In several, Duchenne himself appears, standing to his subject’s side—an Edgar Bergen only with a flesh-and-blood Charlie McCarthy under his control. He remains always at a careful remove, safely at the edge of the action.
In this scenario, Duchenne the Puppetmaster is rendered paradoxically irrelevant: literally on the sidelines of the picture and also of the passion play being enacted for the camera.
True, it is his decision how to name the fleeting expressions the probes crate. But the power of these images—the place where their mystery lies—is in the faces of Duchenne’s subjects. What we most want to know, but can never discover, is who they were and what they actually felt.
We are left, then, with the question we started with: what lies beneath.
For answers to that question, fast forward to the pictures spread out before me. When I first saw these images, I didn’t know what to make of them. I was used to Rodick’s dark sensibility but one richly expressed in dense, seemingly bottomless layers of pixels and a palette with the tonalities—and the depth—of a night sky.
Now, though, I contemplated a series of stark images in stark black and white. In each, the array of black pixels on a white field seemed like a preliminary sketch for one of the painterly images I’d come to expect from Rodick.
As obsessive as Duchenne’s albumen prints of his toothless old patient, the Untitled Selves are about as stripped-down as portraits can get and, at least in a formal sense, virtually identical: sometimes the head tilts to the left, sometimes to the right, but the face remains always centered, facing an indifferent world.
Nor does Rodick, like Duchenne, show much interest in the conventional purposes of portraiture: there’s no effort to capture personality, or even likeness, and certainly no concern with flattery. On the contrary, the faces that confront us struggles to even to register. Meticulously constructed from thousands of pixels, they are spectral, on the verge of vanishing even as they fight for substance.
Where Duchenne’s photographs set out to codify, to nail down, to define, Rodick’s do nothing but question. And where Duchenne examines the surface—what does a face show us?—Rodick digs and digs in search of what, if anything, is there.
Like Duchenne, Rodick presents us with a gallery of faces. Or, more accurately, one face recorded in the act of dissolving. The technique used here—the layering of pixels—is one Rodick has mastered, but unlike in earlier work that focused on his parents, the palette here is stripped down as though, once he turns to the self, all color gets leeched out of the world.
In these images, the expressions are almost beside the point. In each shot, the face—the flesh itself—disintegrates and, with it, any lingering human expression.
In some, the eyes have been gouged out; in others, the mouth bound by something like barbed wire.
We’re left then with a blank regard and an absent set of the mouth. The eyes register no grand emotion, no plea for mercy, no rage against the dying of the light. There’s no protest, no rictus scream of terror. Rather, the face that presents itself is that of a condemned man serving his sentence.
What terrifies me here is that Rodick is his own puppetmaster, the agent of his own obliteration: rather than some sinister figure on the sidelines applying probes to a helpless subject, the torturer has turned his instruments on himself. Think about making these pictures: sitting before the computer, carefully stripping away your own face. Hollow out your eyes; cut off your left ear, your chin; slash at your lips, your mouth. Look in the mirror and see a death’s head.
3. Where the pain goes
For some time now, Frank Rodick has been turning to (turning on?) family as raw material. Starting with snapshots and portraits, he’s scratched and gouged, stabbed and slashed his way to a body of work that savages the family legacy. A Freudian could have a field day.
For the rest of us, though, the action leads elsewhere. Images of his mother and father collected in two series—Frances and Joseph, respectively—brood on the price life exacts: wounds absorbed and inflicted, the tragedy of our isolation from one another, the void that beckons.
You have so little, these pictures tell us, and even that you will lose: all that you love, every annoyance, your sorrows and disappointments, the trifling pleasures you barely take time to notice, you dearest and your cruelest memories—all dust.
Of late, Rodick has turned on himself in a no less brutal series of self-portraits.
His first foray yielded a set of images built off a single snapshot of the artists as a three-year-old at his bath. Rodick describes them as “manifestations of secrets, eruptions of emotion and intemperance, those violent shadows and longings.”
And they are a harrowing lot: the child (and in a later addendum to the set, the man) has been transfigured into a creature indistinguishable from its wounds. A monster now, this child/man strides across a darkened field like Goya’s Saturn.
That myth echoes faintly throughout Rodick’s family pictures—parents devout the child, the child slays the parents—but in Everything Will Be Forgotten/Season of Mists, the creation/destruction saga is at its most resonant.
At its most literal, this series traces the evolution of child to adult, that is, the creation of (a) man. Less obvious, and more suggestive is Rodick’s handling of his imagery: each figure emerges out of a darkening void, as though coalescing under the gravitational pull of its own rage.
Yet for all their menace, these creatures are effectively impotent. The sense of threat is powerful: in one, the creature is ready to lurch out in attack; in another, it affixes us with a ravenous gaze. Like Goya’s Saturn, they are all blood lust.
But the field is empty. Unlike Saturn, this monster has no victim at hand, no target for its rage.
Except perhaps, itself. For just as these creatures appear to emerge, they seem to dissolve. Just as the irresistible power of their own rage called them forth, it will consume them. The act of creation is the act of annihilation, World Without End, Amen.
4. The problem of existence
A few years back, during a particularly bad patch, I took strange comfort in the persistence of atoms. Waiting for the train that took me to a job I didn’t want to be doing, I watched the sheltering train shed, the scavenging sparrows, the museum perched on a near-distant hill, the rock and dirt that form the hill.
I watched and had a paltry sort of epiphany, one born of science, not redeeming faith. We are all one, I saw. Me, the vaulting station, the museum and its hill, the skittering sparrows—we’re all made of the same stuff.
We will all pass away: I will die. The sparrows will fall, in all probability long before I do. The museum and the station will outlast me but, even so, they will crumble one day.
Mine is a cold comfort. My titled self—Nancy, Edith’s daughter, David’s spouse, the writer, the disgruntled employee, the passable home cook—will vanish.
But the stuff of me—my untitled self—will reconstitute somewhere in the great universe. My small human tragedy that means everything to me and nothing to time and the universe will play itself out, but the stuff of me—all those atoms—will have an encore, returning as who knows what. Maybe a hungry sparrow or the dirt underfoot.
An end is a beginning: annihilation is creation.
5. The one reality
The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of art, the dreamy shadows of song.
At the end of the 19th century, 28 years after Duchenne’s masterstroke of classification, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (based in my hometown of Philadelphia) serialized a work of fiction by one of Britain’s literary celebrities.
The Picture of Dorian Gray scandalized readers with its protagonist’s full-on embrace of debauchery and his easy out. Back then, shame trumped death in the matter of punishment, and Dorian’s fate was incommensurate to his crimes.
The story of a man and his portrait—a portrait that strips away surface and reveals the corruption that lies beneath—reads differently today. A portrait, moreover, that is the very soul of the man who dies with the death—and rebirth—of the portrait. Wilde’s words:
He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter's work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.
Frank Rodick is no Dorian Gray. Gray is a murderer, corrupter, all-around immoralist—a man who has willfully strayed beyond the precincts of redemption. Frank is a stand-up guy.
But his self-portraits are, like Wilde’s novel, a work of art—their own kind of fiction. “Ugliness is the one reality,” Dorian tells himself and (later), “The soul is a terrible reality.”
Read Dorian Gray as a projection of its author’s own battle—Wilde was, after all, a good Catholic boy—and the action becomes a life-and-death struggle between the better angel and the worst demon of his nature, as incarnated by Basil Hallward and Lord Henry respectively. Self-indulgent and guilt-drenched, Dorian repents at novel’s end, but by that point he’s wreaked so much damage that the atonement simply will not do. Not to mention that it ends up killing him.
I’d hardly call Rodick self-induglent: his work is lacerating, and I’ve always wondered about the effect of all those hours poring over the images he creates. Slashing, gouging, tearing, erasing, violating human faces—it all looks like dark work to me, fodder for nightmares and the occasional daymare, no doubt.
Read Untitled Selves as a depiction of a raging internal battle and the vision is of a contest unto the death. As part of a larger dysfunctional family album, these images expose wounds inflicted by blood kin, wounds that do not heal. Administering a slow-acting poison, they leave behind rage, bitterness, and guilt. So Rodick doesn’t exactly repent but, guilt-drenched, he is self-lacerating and the images he offers depict the “monstrous soul-life” left standing in the aftermath of battle.
6. Eating your own heart
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril, says Oscar Wilde. His novel, Rodick’s pictures rip off the façade to expose other (untitled) selves.
And what do those other selves reveal?
The year after I graduated college was a year of reckoning—tears, weakness, self-pity. It was the year I learned just how pathetic I could be.
Everyone else had plans: business school, a job in New York, graduate school, a stab at Hollywood, law school, a return home to Kansas, backpacking across Europe, med school.
Me? I had no plan, just the room where I hid out and listened obsessively to Lowell George: You got real nervous and started to eat your heart out.
I finally landed a job: running the copy room in the basement of William James. It was the perfect sentence for a depressive case: stuck in the bowels of the building where Harvard housed its psychologists, I was condemned to copying their theories about the human psyche. A novelist wouldn’t dare.
I learned things: about the inner workings a Xerox machine; about calibrating my rhythms to the machine’s; about the kindness of secretaries, the casual indifference of students, the exalted position of the professors who reigned in the floors above.
Mostly, though, I learned about myself. Or rather the other self that had been lurking below the surface, a self I had only glimpsed in passing until the crash-and-burn of my post-graduate year. Gone was the good girl, the A student, one of those golden girls of the golden American Dream.
I learned a most un-American lesson: that failure was indeed an option, that I could rip myself apart. It was, perhaps, my first real confrontation with the fate that awaits us all.