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In June 1998, I saw an exhibition called “Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence” at NYU’s Grey Gallery in New York. The show was a revelation to me on every level, aesthetic, thematic, emotional. The show was a survey of the history of photography as a tool for establishing evidence in criminal cases, and included images from the 19th Century through the OJ Simpson case. What I latched onto in the exhibit was the mug shots. How in that instant when the ID photo is taken, something so deep from within the subject is revealed, transcending a mere marking of identifying traits. Identification melted into identity.
The act of executing a “mugshot” portrait was not what I expected. Far from the impersonal, clinical whir of the auto camera (not unlike passport of driver’s license ID photos), when I was confronted with the close proximity of a human face, full of the nooks and scars and lines of life, it gave me a chill. For the right focal length, I needed to be very close, and despite the presence of the camera between us, I felt a palpable connection. I felt that as I took the photograph, I was being photographed as well, my identity transposed on the identity of the detective, and his identity transposed onto mine for that fraction of a second. I experienced a form of contact that was full body, full emotion.
Over nearly 20 years, traveling the world while working as a documentary TV producer, I’ve witnessed a lot, and met an amazing range of people. Criminals, hucksters, and the destitute, but also holy men and women, entertainers, and mountain men. Sometimes I had the privilege to spend a lot of time with them and get to know them really well, and sometimes my contact was fleeting, just long enough to ask them “Can I take your picture?” In the end, it didn’t really matter that much, the fraction of a second during which they performed as themselves for me and I performed as myself for them was equally as charged with the frisson of humanity.
Over time, my “catalogue” grew and deepened, and I began to imagine that the men and women who I had photographed formed a family. A complicated and messy family, with me the spoke in the wheel, a cousin to everyone. After my diagnosis of multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer, in 2018, I felt an urgency to collect this family and present it as a kind of evidence of my contact with the world, and so I collected these portraits into the book project CONTACT.
Like everyone, my access to other people has been extremely limited over the past several months due to social distancing. I miss the connection to others of course, the contact, but especially the nuance of faces, the tiny gradations of expression that define us and how we interact, now hidden behind masks.