Fotograf Magazine

Torben Eskerod

Register, mask, transcendence

‘How does the appearance of a person mirror his inner character? Is there a relation between the body and soul and the architectonic form of the human face? If certain aspects of human character are captured in the human face, is it possible to photograph the human soul?’

Torben Eskerod


Eskerod focuses only on the faces of the photographed models, which he places head-on and more or less symmetrically in front of the viewer. The light falls from the front on the faces, not from the side, therefore the modelling of the faces is not dramatically heightened in any way. The light is not sharp but rather diffuse and thus models the faces into a gentle relief. This phenomenon is particular manifest in the photographs of the plaster masks; the chosen approach here seems to correspond to the character of the models. Subtle relief activity (the modelling of wrinkles, etc.) plays on the surface of the masks. ‘Trimmed’, gentle transitions are manifest; when the masks were taken off, for example, the shapes of the eyebrows and hair merged into a solid mass, treated only in a cursory way.

The artist often photographs on black-and-white material. The photographs of the plaster masks also create a monochrome impression, with only very weak colour tones. As in a number of other cases, the background of the photographed masks is solid, monochrome. The plaster casts of the faces hover before a backdrop of vague black space. Thus, the artist’s approach can be described as minimalist, with only the slightest intervention in the ordinary existence of the model. Nothing is emphasised here, no specific moment. On the contrary, the diffused light and minimal composition create an impression of ambiguity, uncertainty. That is, they refer to ordinary perception as an average, a derivative of various specific situations and perspectives. We do not perceive each situation in its uniqueness, but as an extracted sign or form with which we work in our memory.

In his work the artist concentrates on making a register of faces, likenesses, individualities and types. This attempt has much in common with traditional artistic, scientific and political attempts to observe the face both as unique and as a type, to facilitate the recognition and reproduction of its features. The attempt to capture the external appearance, the description of the face, leads in two different directions. One is characterised by an interest in the representation of expression, the other by an interest in noting physiognomy. The expression is understood as a manifestation of an emotional state, while physiognomy is supposed to correspond to the long-term organisation of personality, its permanent characteristics.
Traditionally, both areas have been subject to categorisation. A number of artists and scientists have been interested in the canonisation of mimetic configurations as manifestations of emotional states (C. Lebrun, J. E. Purkyně and others). The shape of the face and skull was also a focus of interest in the fields of physiognomy and phrenology, which hoped to find in it the reflection or print of the mental state of the individual. The state authorities have also tried to categorise and register the appearance of citizens, but without showing any interest in the inner qualities of the people depicted. Seeing our own likeness in any kind of identity card can be a very strange experience. Usually, this appears to be someone we have ‘never seen before’. It is not clear what exactly the photograph presents. On the one hand, it is not an event in our life, it is not us; on the other hand, it is clearly a derivative of our likeness, with which, however, we can hardly identify, for the very reason that it hardly registers anything. That is, of course, the main purpose of the small identity card portraits, in which we cannot see the ‘landscape of the face’; that is, the physiognomic details, which might perhaps say something about the long-term status or role of the person. Thomas Ruff, in his large-format portrait photographs, treats expressionless, non-contextualised  portraits.

Sometimes, of course, an interest in what is ‘behind’ the face, what is taking place within, predominates. That is also Eskerod’s main theme. In this respect, one can speak unambiguously of the face and its representation as a mask, making symbolic reference to hidden or absent contents and events. The motif of closed eyes often indicates that the surface of the face only reflects what is going on behind it. This motif was used most frequently by the Symbolists (O. Redon). Closed eyes testify to the ‘internal sight’ of the person, who is in a meditative state, watching a vision. In this instance, the face is not what we see but what is behind it: the story or vision of the individual. C. Boltanski works in a similar way with photographic portraits, revealing through them the process of remembering. Boltanski stimulates this process, although he does not give it a concrete theme. He encourages it for its own sake (just as we sometimes have a taste for something, but not for something in particular). Therefore, we are not surprised that Eskerod, in one of his cycles, focuses on portraits of clairvoyants, that is, people watching their own internal vision, on which the attention of the viewer is focused by means of the motifs of closed eyes and the expression of concentration. The Symbolist theme is expanded to include the dialectic of life and death, suggested by the motif of the alternately open and closed eyes.

Thus, in the work of Torben Eskerod, two opposite dialectical poles are manifest. One shows an interest in a detailed physiognomic rendering of the face, a generalising perspective that averages out, without contrasts, without frozen action. What we see here is the extracted appearance, as it sticks in our memory when we are able to subject it to tests of recognition. Such a portrait includes the potential of the most diverse situations, but it does not reveal any specific situation. We say to ourselves: ‘I know (or don’t know) that person’. We do not ask: ‘What is that person doing? What is happening?’ That would be too dramatic. The second pole consists of those suggestions that the artist is not interested
in the exterior, the present, visible phenomenon (picture), but in the situation and information that are hiding behind it. There is also an unavoidable contradiction in the freezing of a mobile physiognomy, particularly strong in the motif of the plaster mask. To some extent, however, motion is replaced by the potential for transformation manifest in the soft modelling of the faces. Considering these contradictions, we can interpret the main theme of Eskerod’s work as transcendence. Paradoxically, that detailed drawing of the surface suggests the existence of other spaces – ‘behind’ and elsewhere. The aim of the representation is not the ordinary present; it only hides behind it. Even death is transcendence. Just as Boltanski’s portraits evoke a vague process of remembering without a specific theme, Eskerod’s photographs evoke a non-specific process of going
beyond, the attempt to get behind the mask.

Václav Hájek