Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Eyes Have It

Lately, while riding on the Staten Island Ferry, I have gotten into the habit of using my cell phone camera to snap close-up pictures of one of my eyes. In fact, one of these pictures currently serves as my phone's screen saver. Why have I started doing this? Well, for one thing, this camera takes surprisingly clear and crisp pictures. Even extreme close-ups come out well. But, of course, this comment neatly evades the more pressing issue of what in the world would possess me to occupy my time in such a bizarre way. I'm not sure I know, but I thought I would use this post to try to figure that out.

Like many people, I enjoy experimenting with the camera that comes with my cell phone. I'm always looking for unusual and arresting images. One day I turned this camera on myself and was absolutely appalled by the result. It was one of those pictures taken from just below my jawline, almost looking up into my nose. But the really disgusting aspects were the creases in my chin that appeared so prominently as I bowed my head to look into the camera, and the flat, almost blank expression that appeared on my face. It looked like me sadly enough, but it was a version of myself that skewed toward extreme unattractiveness.

Somehow, this terrible outcome led me to more attempts, including a series of close-ups of my face. There was something about my eyes in those initial close-ups that surprised me, prompting me to pull the camera even closer to myself, so that a number of the pictures that resulted were dominated by one of my eyes, either looking up, to the side, or straight into the camera. Despite what I assume is a low quality camera, these eye pictures were sharp and very blue (my eyes are blue) and rather haunting, quite different really from pictures one usually sees.

By isolating my eyes in this way, I seemed to be peering more deeply into myself, or at least viewing a side of myself that doesn't come across as clearly as when my entire face is in the frame. What I saw was altogether too serious, too intense, too penetrating, and, in a way, too frightened. All of this especially came across as I viewed and reviewed an extended series of these pictures. It was almost as if my eye was a window to my soul and what I was seeing was disconcerting, a person on the edge, unsettled, uncertain, but also alert to new possibilities, and eager to experiment. But it was the tentativeness of that eye, that not-quite-sure-what's-going-to-happen-next aspect that threw me a bit, even as I was intrigued by it.

Eyes are fascinating in this way. I have long been a fan of self-portraits of all kinds and of those painted by Rembrandt, in particular. Rembrandt began painting himself when he was a young man and a prospering artist and continued to do so periodically for the rest of his life, even as his mastery of his art reached new heights while his economic fortunes took a nose dive. These works, more than 40 in all (and this omits the many etchings and sketches), are among the most powerful and haunting in the history of art, not least because of his skill in capturing his own aging eyes. His eyes as a young man are confident, self-assured, even a bit arrogant. As an old man, they are undeniably sad, but also knowing, fully lived-in eyes that reflect both the weariness of a long, often difficult life and the wisdom that comes from successfully withstanding adversity. They are the eyes of a fully realized human being who despite great success and accomplishment, tends to accentuate the disappointments and the regrets, and who portrays himself, anyway, as more exhausted than exhilarated, more worn down than looking up or ahead. Yet, somehow, these portraits, as a whole, are also a study in persistence and of a person who, though battered, remains true to himself and to his art.

What do Rembrandt's self-portraits have to do with my own efforts to capture my eyes with my cell phone? Not sure really. For one thing, my photographs are an amateurish capturing of my eyes as they really are, whereas Rembrandt brings an authentic artistic genius to his perspective on himself. His self-portraits are not merely a documentary record of his face, but a brilliant re-imagining of who he is and what he is becoming. But I think there is something about taking time to look ourselves literally in the eye to help us get a better view at who we are and what we are feeling that has some value. We often talk about self-reflection and developing a balanced sense of self-awareness, but we rarely, if ever, suggest that we look ourselves in the eye to gauge our state of mind, to take stock of who we are. I'm not sure I feel so strongly about this that I would recommend it to others, and admit it may lead to self-absorption and narcissism, but I would still say give it a try. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a glimpse, however modest, into your very own true self.


  1. O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as others see us
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us
    An' foolish notion
    What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us
    An' ev'n Devotion

  2. Just saw the movie El secreto de sus ojos- The secret in their eyes..

    You should see it if you have not..great movie.

    The only relation that my comment has to your post is that the title has the word eyes in it!

    I continue to enjoy reading your posts. See you soon! Katia