Max Kozloff – The Theatre of the Face

© Thomas Ruff

I have just finished reading (and taking extensive notes on) The Theatre of the Face by Max Kozloff. It is one of them suggested course books for IAP and talks extensively about photographic portraiture in the 20th Century (just overlapping into the 21st).  It is a heavy book, in both senses of the word, but I found it both interesting and enlightening. He introduced me  to a range of photographers that I had not come across previously, and I found his thought on much of the sub-genres provoking. The last chapter particularly talks about how there has been a change in the use of photography in portraiture. In some cases people make an effort to show the ‘why’ of a person and in others they seem to make the image so deadpan (although he does nor use this word)  that, while they are looking for objectivity, Kozloff clearly feels they fail to say anything about the person. He uses images from Ruff to illustrate this. He also talks about the genre of artists who make themselves up as someone else, either to play out a historical painting (Morimura) or to tell a story (Sherman and Nikki S. Lee).

Interestingly, while looking for images for this post, I came across this image by Morimura. What does it mean when one person makes an image that riffs of another’s image which is already a fantasy?

© Yasumasa Morimura – To My Little Sister / For Cindy Sherman, 1998

I am not going to try and summarise 317 pages of words and images here, as I have already made notes –Notes and thoughts from The Theatre of the Face. His final paragraph sums up his whole book,  ‘Still regardless of their social status, we understand most subjects to be individuals who have struck a pose – some ones or no bodies on a stage, be it literal or metaphorical. Portraiture illuminates the stage and fixes some little trace of our brief performance. Looking through portrait archives, we learn how much our joint good will, and therefore our wellbeing, is dependent on appearances. At the same time, appearances excite us by the mystery of individuals, who assume that they will be taken at face value. Here is a quandary that, happily or not, must keep us guessing. From one charnel era to the next, the quandary endures, insinuating its challenge, as much when the individual is known as nameless.’ (Kozloff, 2007, p.317).


Kozloff, M. (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon, p.317.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s