A picture, a negative, all the faces
This work by José Luís Neto (2000) began when he found a picture by Joshua Benoliel at the Photography Archive of the Lisbon City Council. It was taken for O Século newspaper on 5 February 1913, during the ceremony that abolished the use of hoods in the Lisbon Penitentiary. Such devices had been in use since 1884, as prescribed by the prison services’ regulations. The picture, taken in the Penitentiary’s amphitheatre, shows us a fragment of the moments right before that ceremony. It gives us a glimpse of that strange place where the prisoners’ bodies are confined in individual compartments, and none of them is able to look into the contiguous spaces. We can only see the prisoners’ heads, covered with the white hood they were forced to wear anywhere and anytime one of them could catch a glimpse of another (ironically, this was precisely the place where that use was not enforced, since there could be no eye contact). They face the observer, while a strong light bursts through the upper windows, blinding our vision of the scene, as if we were the object being looked at (we will return to that later). It is an impressive picture (an adjective that gains an enriched meaning by its referring to a photograph) that touches us by the situation’s strangeness, questioning us through this succession of concealed faces that look at us (at the moment this is only a surmise) from their opacity. There are also a few details, turning our attention to particulars, like an arm hanging from one of the cells, a face that seems uncovered or the fragility of the two guards, crushed by the silent presence of their charges.

José Luís Neto began working on the original 9 x 12 cm negative of this picture, centring his gaze on it.
He looked inside the photograph by gazing at its source, the negative. He duplicated fragments and isolated figures, photographing and enlarging their grain until the inside of each cell gained a coherent visibility, individualising the form of its occupant. He dislocates his gaze from the picture to the negative itself, in order to recuperate in the most faithful way the purely photographic material.
This investigation has a logic that finds its genealogy, or definition, from within José Luís Neto’s work. His career has been a systematic inquiry into the language and nature of photography, into its subjects and materials, starting from the simple meeting of light and photosensitive materials, with nothing else but that meeting to record on the mechanisms and devices that record and send back the visible, and which are now dislocated into a pre-existent picture, a picture he found by chance and on which he has concentrated his attention. It is also a work on scale, an issue that has concerned him throughout several series, in which he directly prints small negatives, forcing the spectator to move closer to the picture in order to understand it. In the present instance, he works in reverse, enlarging the negative. His expression remains centred on the photograph, which here has no external reality from which to originate; what is photographed in the present work is the photographic grain, indeed a direct impression of reality. If there is reality here, it belongs in the photographic realm, and to it we shall (we must) return.
Throughout his work, there is a slowness that we find again in this series. A slowness of making, seen in the thoroughness with which he approaches every process connected to the material and conceptual achievement of each work, and a slowness of looking, a slow, attentive gaze across the negative’s thin surface, slowly penetrating the successive layers of meaning it encloses. This is, thus, a series born of the amazement that comes from looking across the surface of a negative, appreciating the disposition of the grain, and from the appearance of a shape in a fold of the plane’s (ir)regularity (and who has tried to look at pictures that way knows well the amazement and wonder of looking at a familiar world with inverted luminous values, where light is always shadow and shadow becomes light).

And so we face a strange and silent gallery of near-portraits, in which a reflection on identity and depersonalisation is staged, reminding us again of the place where Benoliel’s picture was taken. Rocha Martins tells us of the strange silence one feels while walking inside the penitentiary in an article he published in Illustração Portugueza magazine (pp. 180-187, 2nd series, 1st semester 1906), and also of the strange entry ritual, in which the prisoner loses his name and is given a number and a hood. The name’s obliteration is followed by the face’s concealment, in a process of symbolic dispossession of the Self, in which identity is replaced by an inventory number and the possibility of identifying oneself in front of others through the face is denied (it is not by chance that this work’s title, 22474, is the archive inventory number of the original negative). In the surface of the photographic grain, now revealed, made visible, appears a new surface, a place for the inscription of a possible face, reduced here to its minimal recognisable traits and bringing to our memory echoes of the Deleuzian white wall / black hole system.
It is from this zero degree of the face, from this grain, that we may construct a possible face, so as to reach the Other through it.
Thus José Luís Neto constructs a space for a reflection on the portrait, in which its possibilities of occurrence are questioned, and which finds in this context an extreme, almost perfect formulation.
It is not a portrait in the sense of being a likeness, but rather in the sense of an identity-constructing, recognition process. And this is one of the places in which the negative’s transparency becomes opaque. There is no immediate portrait here: the Other is neither recognisable nor identifiable; one cannot give him a face, only one body can be guessed at, in its intimate fragility and yet, in a strange inversion, we can feel its presence, confronting us from behind the surface.

And, while there may be here a criticism of our times, in which seeing and being seen seem to be a whole design for living, our loneliness before the mirror is very ancient, and our body has always carried it. Consequently, each of these figures, emptied of personal story by the invisibility to which they were reduced (reinforcing their currently unavoidable anonymity), becomes a place for all possibilities, being all (our) faces at once. Surface becomes mirror-like and thus, as we look at them, we are looking at our own faces.

Francisco Feio
(translation: José Gabriel Flores)