From 1926, by the hand of Anatole Josepho (1894-1980), a Siberian emigrant in the United States, and following at least two failed French patents at the end of the nineteenth century, the dissemination and popularity of these machines grew fast, the rights of national licensing were sold to a company named Photomaton, and already in 1927, made for their inventor a profitable sum of a million of dollars. This automatic machine would allow producing eight portraits in eight minutes, without requiring the help of an operator. They were positives on paper, without the mediation of a negative (and as later we shall see, this absence of a residual proof would eventually influence its use).
From a formal point of view the results were quite close to the ones for police identification purposes, whose principles had been established at the end of the XIX century from the anthropometry of Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914): frontal portrait, focused only on the head, cut by the shoulder line, always at the same distance due to the scale, against a neutral background and lit frontally (along with a lateral view, on profile, in the same conditions, both to which a third one, at three quarters, would be added).
This formal and processual similarity guaranteed and still guarantees, two parallel lives for this image production. It was rapidly adopted by the bureaucratic system in a fever for individual inventory and throughout its existence one became in need of his or her own image for a whole series of administrative acts that make it, more and more, a part of process itself. This typology of representation, at its extreme normalization, erases identity in favour of mere identification and consequently all faces look alike and are only one: here we’re all the same1. Recently with the drift of security of the cross-border space, there is even an ISO norm2 that regulates the technical aspects and the typology of the portraits to use in passports or in documents containing biometrical data intended to be read by a machine.
These images and the practice of the portrait in these photo booths also follow another path, a more private, intimate experience, isolated or in a group, frequently in pairs. The isolation of the booth propitiates transgression which lead to, since the beginning, its use in the limits of public/private, borderline illicit, to which the absence of proof (the negative) guarantees the anonymity. It has been object of great attention, largely used in numerous artistic projects that range from the construction of the famous collective portrait of and by the surrealist group, to Francis Bacon’s conscious integration and reflection about it in his work, from Warhol and Chuck Close to numerous personal projects, the examples multiply.
Of what concerns this photographic act is a paradoxical technique, a camera without an operator, whose technical decisions are all pre-defined and unknown to us, in which nothing can be decided but the pose, an almost self-portrait, an image on the mirror fixed by chance. In the isolation of the booth, when alone, it is a solitary act. One rehearses a pose that one cannot see, the coins are inserted, the warning light comes on, distracting us, not preparing us for the intense flash light that blinds us from then on, a small death prolonged through the wait for the humid strip that comes out of the interior silence of the machine into our hands3.
PMC/P.M.I. passport (a title taken out of the brand of photographic paper on the back of some of the strips and that apart from a handwritten date and place, are the only inscriptions on its back) works from a set of fragments of images resulting from the use of this technology. Naturally enigmatic, nothing is known about whom, how and why he appears on those strips and it’s from this ground zero that José Luís Neto starts his work. He assumes the fragment, the objectual and physical side of photography, and deals with it as if it was a valuable, almost archeological asset, with conservation care and an extremely rigorous presentation. This importance given to the materiality of the photographic support has been a constant in his work and has occupied entirely the projects High Speed Press Plate and Classic 111, both from 2006.
These images are then used as the basis for a work that will interrogate the nature and limits of the photographic, representation and authorship. The majority of these images, as to what can be seen, has failures from a technical point of view; one can find double images, inverted superimpositions, chromatic aberrations, some of them are out of focus (which is an opening on the mystery: why would anyone keep such vast failed collection of himself). From the representation point of view, with exception to one, all of them are similar as to the same absence of any expression, any revealing trace of self. They are only that; someone, something, that appears. Two fragments represent itself and document the process itself, its limits, from the total exposure to the profound darkness, here represented on the black and the white since the process is direct.
Through a process of appropriation (in which we recognize the author) of the reproduction and enlargement of precise fragments of the found footage, maintaining a crop mark that crosses the shoulders, José Luís Neto works on the level of scale (a subject itself part of the nature of the photographic process of miniaturisation of the world) and makes use of the pictorial dimension of the image turning into a category different from the original portrait. By slightly unfocusing the image, introducing yet one more detour in relation to the sharpness of photographic objectivity, we watch a second digression relative to the identity of the one represented. The face becomes more diffuse and only the look, the nodal centre of the portrait, interrogates us in its dissolution, in the progressive loss of its iconic character in the same way it happens to us, in the isolation and silence of the booth until a violent light comes to blind us.
Francisco Feio, October of 2008
- following on from, Serge July imagines what would be a museum of French identity, made from the archives of identity: “we would be left with the absence of expression […] in this imaginary museum there would be a concentractionary atmosphere, suffocating, with an odour of a prolonged death. France would become a mausoleum where finally we’d search in vain for lost identities.” In Identités, de Disdéri au Photomaton, Photo Copies, CNP, Paris, 1986
- the ISO/ IEC 19794-5 norm of 2005 covers the exchange of biometric data, in the category of technologies of information. Part 5 regulates precisely the data relative to the image of the face on means extended from technological issues, such as exposure, quality, colour space, backgrounds, to aesthetic issues, like the pose, or even issues on a more cultural, case of haircuts, accessories (piercings, necklaces, glasses) or religious level like the use of the veil, having evolved with the demand for security by the airport authorities.
In France, the company Photomaton was certified for the realization of photographs guaranteedly accepted by the authorities. The booths have precise instructions about the behavior of the photographed as to all of these requisites, with the explicit indication that one shouldn’t smile (there should be a total absence of expression able to individualise them on a certain moment) and thanks to digital technology it has been possible to overlay a guiding grid to the image so that nothing flees not even an inch to the little tolerance, allowed by the authorities (the machine for facial recognition and mechanical reading of biometric data).
- machines themselves kept evolving and the strips ended up getting out almost dry. Some has a ventilation system at the compartment where the strip would be blown dry. Nowadays, with digital technologies for capturing and printing, the wait not longer exists taking with it the physical and sensorial character that the humidity on the print would transmit making it closer to a laboratorial practice.