Photographic Review: In His Mirror Image





At first glance the photograph of the young male subject may not capture an audience’s full attention; after all, he is merely sitting and smoking. However when coupled with its matured counterpart the photographs adopt a much more symbolic and profound meaning. Initially one would believe it to be almost impossible to draw concrete reason from these photographs due to the fact that the photographer(s), dates, and locations of the photographs are unknown. Yet they are similar due to their dissimilarities and uncertainties. The near exact composition of the portraits’ astounded me when I first viewed them, when situated alongside one another the subject almost mirrors himself in both his pose and his direct gaze at the camera. In fact, his intense gaze appears to pierce through the lens, thus confronting the spectator in what could be seen as a reverse gaze.

Turning to the first photograph we see that the young subject is in a military uniform, the subject is tied to both the obedience of the army and to the very photograph. First as he is situated in a subordinate position, the photographer seems to have taken the picture from a higher level than the subject, thus looking down on him. Secondly the soldier is forced into obedience by the camera which captures his image and the photograph’s frame which further restricts him. Was he ever a POW, or just the prisoner of his military idealism? One could even suggest that he is simply a prisoner of the camera itself. Thus the sitting subject’s look of defiance could be a means to challenge the very person who observes him.

So we turn to his mature self. The uniform has been removed, it might have been stowed away neatly in the back of a wardrobe or in the bottom of a box which may or may not reside in an attic or under a bed. Like the photograph itself, the uniform is a nostalgic token gathering dust. Or it could have been rejected entirely depending on the subject’s dismissal from the army. Casting off his uniform could reflect the shedding of past naïve expectations of war; nevertheless, the subject remains prideful in his appearance.

By adopting the suit the subject has reintegrated into external society after the war; whether he feels at ease in his new role is ultimately questionable. Both past and future subjects remain aloof due to the distancing effect of the camera in addition to the lack of social interaction. We cannot empathise with the isolated individual because of the notion of the missing subject, without others to relate to our existences are futile. We are unable to recognise ourselves within a wider context and so the camera simultaneously isolates the subject in his own immortalisation.

Despite the camera’s offering of eternal existence through the frozen image it is clear that the aging process did not halt entirely. The contrast between youth and old age makes the images most striking when viewed together, it could even be said that the most crucial aspects of the photographs are not of the pictures themselves but are actually the blank space of the frames which surround them. Life, it seems, has continued beyond the frames yet the audience is not privileged enough to be granted access to view it. The notions we invent in these blank spaces are purely hypothetical, they may or may not have ever come into being and until these speculations are rooted in the frame behind a sheet of glass that is all they will ever be, pure black and white speculations.

The lighting is atmospheric in both images, reflecting the opening of the young man’s life in the first photograph while the shadowy background in the latter image could symbolise the close of his life. The gap between the photographs act as the metaphorical mirror which reflects the self, yet the real does not exist in the frozen image and we find that the subject is merely a shadow of a shadow. Therefore the subject is unable to unite his two split egos and as a result must remain imperfect.

Furthermore, if the arrangement of the images were reversed their semiotic connotations would also alter; instead of portraying progress the portraits would show the subject’s reflection on his past. It is then interesting to imagine what the next photograph in the series would look like:

The overexposed and the unlit photographs depict the physical absence of the subject, his being fading into history. A montage on the other hand could offer a more positive significance, that his two selves have been reunited in death. Barthes surmised in Camera Lucida that by viewing the photograph one is reminded that the subject will cease to exist and that the viewer will ultimately reach the same fate as well. This grim reality is confirmed by the absence of a smile. In fact I can confirm that the subject of the photographs is deceased and has been for thirteen years. Knowing this, does our opinion of the images change?

His obvious but somewhat sudden physical transformation between the frames is what one would expect, yet what if I told you that the subject’s very identity was altered due to the renaming process. While his aging was controlled externally by nature the adoption of a new name and thus a new identity was the subject’s conscious attempt to gain authority over his person and subsequently root himself in the present. Upon rejecting his original name the subject underwent a metaphorical death, therefore the assumption of a new name offered my grandfather a psychological resurrection.

Anthony Motylski 1924 – 1960

Anthony Hamilton 1960 – 1996




Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: reflections on photography (London: Vintage: 1993)

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, from Selected Writings Volume 4. 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. by. Edmund Jephcott and Others, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: London, 2003)

Freud, Sigmund, 1856-1939, Abstracts of The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, (New York: International Universities Press: 1973)

Freud, Sigmund, 1856-1939, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, (Hogarth: 1961)

Kelly, Angela, ‘Self Image: Personal and Political’, from The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, (London: Routledge: 2003) pp. 410-417

Kuhn, Annette, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, (Verso:London: 2002)

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits: A Selection, translated by, Alan Sheridan, (Routledge:London)

Martin, Rosy, and Jo Spence, ‘Photo-Therapy: Psychic Realism as a Healing Art?’, from The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, (London: Routledge: 2003) pp. 402-409


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