When I was twenty-one I lived in the right hand side of a drab green duplex whose kind can be found in many university towns, something built cheaply to shelter graduate students through hard winters. Within the collection of thrift store furniture, total house value possibly eighty dollars, was a long, narrow mirror of the kind that is usually bolted onto the backs of doors. Never has there been such a generous piece of glass, a mirror that was so unfailingly kind. Isn’t it said somewhere that mirrors don’t lie? If this one didn’t lie it certainly knew a thing or two about playing with the truth. Maybe it was the way it was tilted slightly back, or maybe it was the dim overhead bulb in the hallway covered by a piece of amber glass. Perhaps in making such an inexpensive mirror the manufacturer left something out, something that would have given us more information than we actually wanted. The mirror forgave us, loved us, and day after day offered up a version of our best selves that I, for one, have never had replicated.
I think about the mirror of my youth the way I remember someone equally removed by time who once found me beautiful, and wish I could be seen again with that particular set of eyes. For all the times I have checked, I have very little sense of what I look like now. Would I recognize myself across a crowded room? Could I pick myself out of a line-up? Most of us are bad judges of our own faces. Mirrors, photographs, give us only a small part of the story. We are too critical or too kind and eventually just too familiar with ourselves to see anything at all.
And we don’t necessarily do a better job looking at other people. We take in the faintest outlines of what we see and then fill in the rest with our imagination. Sight links us to our memories, so that the straight blond hair reminds us of a cousin in Wisconsin who was always laughing, the shape of the eye belongs to a girl who let us read her notes in European history, the nose is a nose we once kissed on a dark night standing on the seashore in Maine. Or it goes the other way, the jaw is taken from the guy who fired you from your first job, and the lips turn into that unpleasant kid who stalked you through the playground every day at recess. Based on the features we remember, our hearts go soft for strangers or the delicate hairs on the backs of our necks ruffle up. We walk away not seeing so much as making a composite sketch.
With the people we know the best our vision is even faultier. It is shaped by every act of kindness that came to us, as well as every disappointment we have filed away. How do we really see someone who is in front of us every day? I once unexpectedly caught sight of the man I have loved for many years. I was at a restaurant, deep in conversation with a friend, and as he leaned towards me I gasped because for an instant I didn’t know him. I saw him as a stranger. I saw him as I had on the day we met a very long time ago. He was utterly, shockingly, beautiful, a fact I had known and then forgotten. Sometimes it takes the element of surprise to pry history away from what we see. Sometimes it is an illness, a pregnancy, a reunion after a long time away. A startling change can reintroduce us to someone, and suddenly our eyes are open again.
Into this list of all the people we look at, let us also consider the very famous. I’m not talking about movie stars who are photographed on red carpets speckled with diamonds in the evening, and then at merciless angles while running one block to buy a coffee and a pack of cigarettes in the morning. I’m talking about the people we most admire. Would it ever be possible to see a picture of Dr. King without hearing the words, “I have a dream” in the back of your mind? When we look at his eyes now, serious or smiling, all of what we know is there. We think we can see the intelligence, the integrity, but would we, really, if this were just a photo of a man? I remember the picture of the Maryland sniper and his young accomplice on the day they were caught, their wide open smiles spread across the front page of the paper. They were such handsome men, their arms looped around each other’s shoulders. Would I have known anything by looking at them? Here was great man felled by a sniper and an ambitious sniper some thirty-five years later, could you see the difference in their eyes?
You can, because you are looking with the weight of all you know.
They are two very different things, Whistler’s portrait of his mother and Sargent’s portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. One is a great painting, and the other will always be a painting of a great man. A model is a glorified bowl of fruit, lighted and arranged to best express the desires of the artist, but a person we know and admire is never simply a model. Would it be possible to look at a painting of Dr. King for the first time and see the merit of the art before you saw the merit of the man? Maybe if you had a very disciplined eye, or if you had seen a hundred portraits of Dr. King in a single day.
It is a different kind of artist who chooses to place himself in a secondary position to his subject. And so I come to this book you hold in your hands, these remarkable portraits of equally remarkable people and I wonder why Barry Moser chose to take this on while at the same time being grateful that he did. With every portrait I stop and study. Every one sends me outside of this book. When I look at the portrait of Flannery O’Connor I must think about the first time I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find. The difference between these engravings and, say, looking at a photograph of the author, is that here I see not only what I know about O’Connor’s stories, I see what Moser knows about them as well. In the delicate line of her eyeglasses, the serious line of her mouth, I learn not only something about her, but something about her writing. It is the marriage of how I read those stories and how Moser read them. It is the marriage of his brilliance as an artist and her brilliance as an artist. I am given the chance to take a different perspective on someone I have, in a sense, known and certainly loved since I was thirteen, and the result is that it brings the full force of her work to life for me again.
How often do we have a chance to see with another set of eyes? Not to see what someone else sees, that happens often enough in art, but to actually see something with them, as if we were standing beside the artist? Moser leaves plenty of room for us to come inside these portraits. It is there in the dark hollows of Nelson Algren’s eyes, his head turned unexpectedly as if he had just that moment noticed us, and was glad. It is in the surprisingly few lines of Chopin’s face, as simple as the notes in a nocturne. We feel the full weight of Herman Melville, the layers of his clothes, the thick brush of his beard, the heavy burden of a genius that would not be recognized in his lifetime. With the same set of tools Moser makes us feel the massiveness of Moby Dick and the wild imaginings of Jean Cocteau in a face that seems born out of a dream of Orpheus.
Here we have the chance to visit the people we were sure of and learn something more, while at the same time learning more about the qualities of shadow and light, texture and line. Like the mirror I left behind in that Iowa apartment, Moser views kindly. That is not to say he errs on the side of traditional beauty, but that he, like Flannery O’Connor, finds his own version of beauty in everyone who captures his attention.
Look again at Lewis Carroll, whose suit seems to be the burden of life, a heavy, wooly animal, a Snark perhaps, draped around his shoulders to pull him down, while the background behind him suggests a light and feathered world, a world of infinite imagination. I believe that outside the black boarders of the image this background goes on and on like a vast ocean, with Mr. Carroll, human and small, caught between cross tides, the impossibly leaden topcoat that pulls him down and the delicate surroundings that buoy him up. That, of course, makes me think of Alice, who traveled between two worlds herself. By looking at the engraving, I read the book all over again in the company of not only a great artist but a remarkably thoughtful reader. Together, we bring everything we know about Alice and White Rabbits and Snarks to the face of a man who seems to be half asleep in his dreaming.
I do not expect that I will ever learn to see anyone exactly as they appear, even myself. What I am coming to realize is that this might not be such a bad thing after all. If we are all open to the interpretation of the viewer, then maybe what we need is to stand beside better viewers, to take in their more ambitious interpretations. Maybe what we need is for Barry Moser to look at the world for us so that we might study his imagination, generosity, and grace, and then set forth on our own to try and follow his lead.