The Narcissists, a series of triptych portraits taken through a two-way mirror, began in 2006 as an exploration of the unseen, intimate relationship we each have to our own image. My idea was to capture the narcissist’s gaze, that knowing, personal, contemplative stare that happens in solitude as we confront ourselves in the mirror. With other portraits taken in a mirror, the photographer and the camera are a visible part of the experience, somewhere beside or behind the subject. Even with a mirror self-portrait, the camera is present and the experience is about being photographed, not solely about a private session of internal and external self-examination. I decided to try to see what the mirror sees, face to face with someone lost in his or her own reflection and unconcerned about scrutiny.
I created a set in my studio, which enabled me to use my portrait camera, an 8 x 10 Deardorff, to photograph through the thick tinted glass of a two-way mirror. Two-way mirrors, the type used in police stations, have a mirrored surface on one side, and a window on the other. I devised an enormous frame for an oversized mirror, large enough to hide me from view on the window side, with a light-tight box for my camera. The walls of the studio were painted black, so that my subjects had a small, room-sized, womb-like chamber in which to contemplate their own images. I asked everyone to think long and hard about how they wanted to dress, and to bring clothing changes in case they felt uncomfortable with the way they looked. Each person I photographed stood on the mirror side, gazing at themselves for 15 minutes, often changing positions and clothing, and even more often, projecting a wide range of subtle emotions. I remained hidden from my subjects on the window side, and did not speak to them during the 15-minute period, although I did observe them through the glass. The final portraits are presented as triptychs to capture the shifting range of expressions.
To my great surprise, most people showed little signs of self-love or overt narcissism. Instead, people often drifted into a meditative state that bordered on melancholy. Occasionally people cried. Sometimes, unprompted by me, they undressed. Expressions changed from clownish to wary to wounded to confrontational in a matter of moments. Rarely, but sometimes, there were no easily discernible changes in expression for the entire 15 minutes. All the portraits seemed to emerge from the inner depths of each individual, with little similarity between the person I spoke to before the session and the personality I photographed through the mirror. Virtually every time a session ended, and I made my presence known, my subjects appeared startled to remember I was there.
The Narcissists is the third and final part of a trilogy that includes my two previous projects, The Sleepers and The Travelers. In each, I have attempted to challenge the conventional wisdom, famously explained by Richard Avedon, that a photographic portrait is the relationship between two people, the photographer and his or her subject. In The Sleepers, a series of nude portraits of people sleeping for three hours at a time, my subjects were unconscious and unaware of my presence as the photographer. Following that, I photographed The Travelers, a series of formal portraits of people taken after their deaths. While I often felt a strong bond with my postmortem subjects, I recognized that any relationship I felt existed solely in my imagination. Again, with The Narcissists, I assume a role as observer and voyeur. I am the hidden camera, the quintessential outsider, watching without communicating while my subjects remain solitary and undisturbed. Stendhal has a character in Le Rouge et Le Noir who says of a classic narcissist: “She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn’t know you”. As I photographed a random collection of human beings, all immersed in their own images, I discovered something subtly different. My subjects look at themselves instead of looking at me, or my camera, and reveal how little we really know them.
By Elizabeth Heyert