Collecting – Heads: Photographers research – Alex Kayser

17th March 2021

Alex Kayser: HEADS

This series of images I find intriguing, even though the theme at first glance looks like it is connected with baldness, it is in fact much more than that. The text that runs through the book is an interview between the photographer Alex Kayser and interviewers Lyn Mandelbaum and Alan Axelrod. During the interview when he is asked by Axelrod why he is photographing bald people, he replies that the baldness is nothing to do with the project, ‘It has to do with faces, exposed faces’ (Kayser, 1985: 9)

While browsing the faces it is easy to become lost in the book. The black and white images of the people become more than headshots, they become forms, colours, and ethnicities, each presented in the same way with minimal expression and composed as though in a police mug shot. This presentation makes the series even more interesting as I began to compare one shot to another and when I read the person’s name and their job type which appears below the photograph, I began to imagine them as individuals in life. Something that I find interesting is that there are a couple of women present in the book, including an artist who shaved her head specifically so that she could take part in this project, but finding them was not as easy as one would think.

Kayser, A. HEADS [Photograph] p.71

That which I really like about this series is how the headshots are close up, head front facing, cropped in tightly with the top of the head in line with the top edge of the picture plane. Each person that has been photographed is wearing a black top of one style or another and the neck line of the top that each person is wearing has been slightly cut off by the bottom edge of the picture plane. To complete the compositional values they have all been photographed in front of a black backdrop and the lighting comes in from the right of each head.

Sketch of p.37

Another feature of the images that has made me think is the facial expressions, or in this instance the lack of it. Kayser mentions in his interview that rather making portraits he is creating physiognomy studies and tried to give all of his portraits neutral expressions. However when I studied the contents of the portraits I could make out expressions such as slight smiles which are made obvious by the lip shape and eye expressions and shapes which also change.

The images of people without an identifying head of hair which makes each person unique, brings emphasis back onto the face. These heads presented in a row of four, two on each page are grouped together with other people with similar features, whether skin colour, shapes of the head or facial hair, one thing I have to be honest about, I was the most fascinated by the sticking out ears which were of all shapes and sizes.

Kayser, A. HEADS [Photograph] p.119

Presenting the heads in a row reminded me of the grid formats that we studied in the Foundation of Photography where the water towers, as an example, were all captured with the same distance and filled the picture plane the same. The head shots here fits into the category of typologies with the following visual similarities,

  • Same bald head
  • Same expression
  • Same black t-shirt
  • Same black backgroun
  • Same viewpoint: distance/ angle/
  • Same lighting

Looking at all these similarities actually shows us how important our facial and skull formations are because they shape each of our identities as much as our hair styles and clothes. This set of images reveals this as I walk my eyes around each of these faces more and more of their uniqueness jumps out at me, it is just a shame that the human race fights each other for differences such as the way we look, just take Hitler for example with the ultimate blonde hair obsession, but when we dare to look closer we are all in fact rises and falls of forms made by bone structure, and all beautiful in our own right.

Bibliography:

Books

  • Axelrod, A (1985) HEADS by Alex Kayser. (1st Ed.) New York: Abbeville Press Inc. p.9
  • Kayser, A. HEADS [Photograph] In: Axelrod, A (1985) HEADS by Alex Kayser. (1st Ed.) New York: Abbeville Press Inc. p.71 and p.119

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