Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part I)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

—Réné Magritte

onesipe-aguado-woman-seen-from-backOnésipe Aguado, Woman Seen From the Back, 1862,
Salted paper print from glass negative, 12 1/8 x 10 3/16″
Metropolitan Museum)

The human face is a paradox; in the countenance of one is reflected the multitude.  Other human characteristics—fingerprints or retinas, for example—may be more reliable as unique identifiers, yet it is the face that has come to symbolize our sense of self. The face reassures us not only of our own individuality, but of our connection to kin, the Homo Sapiens tribe.

It follows then that a portrait is both a likeness of a particular individual and a mirror of us all. A portrait—the face of another frozen in time—seduces us by inviting us to stare unabashedly. We gaze into the subject’s eyes, and that reflective embrace subtly reminds us of our shared commonality across time and space. Portraits comfort us; we are not alone in this world.

A portrait also records a person  as s/he was seen by the artist and, to some extent, as s/he wanted to be seen by others. And because no work of art is created in a vacuum, a portrait also contains traces of the collective identity—those unique social, political, institutional, and cultural conditions which necessarily influence the specific way a portrait is rendered.  Through the various clues provided or, in many cases, omitted by the artist, we read (or intuit) elements of individual, as well as the collective, identity.

What about Onésipe Aguado’s beguiling photograph from 1862—Woman Seen From the Back? The image shrewdly plays with our notions of portraiture.  On the one hand, the subject is clearly human and our curiosity cannot be contained. Who is this woman and what does she look like?  Without a face, or any telling details of background or visible accoutrements, our focus is directed instead to the exquisite shapes of the sitter’s backside and her costume—the intricate knot of hair, the dots of the comb, the uneven parallelogram of her exposed back, the patterned rectangles of the ruffle, the diagonal folds of her shawl. Though she has no face, this sitter definitely seduces us.

Woman Seen From the Backside is neither fish nor fowl, neither portrait or non-portrait.  Perhaps it is altogether a different genre—a human still life. Though this woman has no individual identity, the photographer has provided the clues that assist us in reading her “collective identity. ”  Through her mid-century costume we can identify her in time (mid-19th century) and  the social strata to which she belong (a woman of some means, unless of course Aguado dressed her, which says something about how the artist saw her). In this way, we do form a tenuous connection with her; she is our kin.

By giving us her backside Aguado has objectified her. And yet, although we can’t see her face, through the backside details, she nonetheless retains an element of humanity. What a feat of magic he has performed!

Olympe Aguado, Self Portrait with His Brother Onésipe, 1853,
Collodion print, 250 x178 mm,
(© Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Estampes et de la photographie)

Aguado did not name his model, which adds to the mysteriousness of the photograph. From the rather pedestrian title the photographer did confer on his image (assuming of course that Aguado himself named it), he clearly had other ambitions on his mind. Interestingly, Maria Morris Hambourg, in her essay for the catalog of the Metropolitan’s The Waking Dream exhibit, surmises that this image is most likely an extension of Aguado’s work investigating photographically-induced foreshortening (i.e. depth of field).

As a mid-19th century photographer, Aguado would have taken subject and compositional cues from contemporary painters. Picturing figures from behind, although rare, was not unknown.  Casper David Friedrich made striking use of this compositional structure  in his 1818 oil Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

* * * * * *

Footnote: Onésipe and his brother Olympe Aguado learned the rudimentaries of photography from Gustave Le Gray.  Although he had limited engagement with the medium, Onésipe is now credited (along with Edouard Delessert) with inventing the popular carte-de-visite format, although it was patented and popularized by Eugène Disdèri.

Wider Connections

Encyclopedia of 19th-century Photography
More Onésipe Aguado images
Gustav Le Gray at the Getty
“The Rise of Photography in France

2 Responses to “Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part I)”

  1. Dear Liz,
    I’m struck by the guts it took Aguado to photograph someone’s back in 1862 when photography was so new. I think, as you and the curator suggest, this may have been more of a technical experiment than an artistic one. Although I am a bit puzzled how this point of view adds to the knowledge of either foreshortening or depth of field? Why would the back tell you anything more than the front? The aesthetic effect, however, is magical and thank you for putting this out on my radar. I find it really fascinating. As I read your articulate comments about the face and identity I could not help but think of Jean Clair’s show at the Venice Biennale several years ago called Identity and Alterity. In this truly stunning show he explored exactly this theme of how we define ourselves and each other. He included mug shots and also those creepy physiognomy photographic experiments which the Germans and others did to try to classify the “criminal element.” I also thought of Apple’s new iPhoto software which puts Homeland Security’s facial recognition technology to work on your personal photographs. (Why does Homeland Security make me think of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany? Do I really need to live in a Homeland?) Anyway, Apples new software is much more benign – I think it even is said to work on cats! Check out the surprising demo at http://www.apple.com/findouthow/photos/#iphoto-faces

    Love your blog!
    Tom Ball

  2. Another fantastic and intriguing post I learned from… thank you…

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