The window or the mirror.

I’d like to introduce a concept here that may help frame the idea of identity and photography. The dialectic of window or mirror is well-established in photographic studies. Rectangular portals define photographic space. Viewfinders, negatives, screens, prints—all of them united by the four 90-degree angles enclosing them and defining their significant space. As far as reflection or transparency, the medium’s dual origins endorse consideration as either windows—Talbot’s process being one in which light passes through a matrix in order to inscribe its traces on a receiving surface—or mirrors, Daguerre’s light-sensitized, keenly polished silver surface famously regarded as “the mirror with a memory” and inscribed in photographic literature by Richard Rudisill’s 1971 book, Mirror Image: The Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society.

The late, eminent scholar and curator John Szarkowski formulated an influential thesis and exhibition around the notion of photographic transparency and reflection. His Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 (exhibition and catalogue produced by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1978) proposed that photographs could be read and understood as either perspectives on the world or as extensions of their maker’s self-conception. This is the argument in brief, summarized and over-simplified for the sake of readers who can and should delve into Szarkowski’s proposition in greater length at another time. But his question about shape and function, addressing “conceptions of what a photograph is” (Mirrors and Windows, p. 25) as a marker of time, space, and intention, hovers around us now.

I would need to do some careful reading of Szarkowski to ascertain his position on photography’s relationship to identity. Although he assigned the “mirror” label to works containing an abundance of information about the artist’s intentions, I sense he would have hesitated to admit that those works functioned as signs of identity. What, after all, can we reasonably accept as a truth about an individual as established through their output of visual art? Is every photograph a self-portrait, or are some more precisely focussed on a mission of identifying someone or something entirely apart from the image-maker?

My interest here alights on a model derived from communications theory known as the Johari window. It derives its figurative name from the straightforward, four-paned way it appears as a diagram.


“The Johari window is a technique created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1914–1995), used to help people better understand their relationship with self and others. It is used primarily in self-help groups and corporate settings as a heuristic exercise.”

Wikipedia’s entry, used as the caption, refers to the contexts in which I have encountered this model. (I also vaguely recall its use during orientation for a new school I entered in eighth grade, an application that seems oddly groovy as I reflect on it now.) The “open self” is sometimes referred to as the arena, in which nothing about oneself is hidden. The quadrant below that, in which parts of oneself are consciously undisclosed, is analogous to a façade. Through improved communications, the window’s desireable upper left frame can grow in two directions to minimize the lower right quadrant, that wild, frightful, unquantifiable terra incognita of the unknown self. The arena quadrant may be expanded downward with more disclosure; more feedback about one’s blind spots can help an individual expand the arena outward to the right.

Photography addresses what is seen. The visible is just a fraction of what characterizes an individual, though it is always present and always conveying information. What one chooses to hide behind, expressed in one’s appearance, may also reflect a blind spot one has about an element one can’t eliminate. Overcompensating to hide something may have the effect of drawing more attention to the imagined defect. That element suggests itself, to me at least, as an important part of one’s identity. How do people recognize you, no matter what disguises or costumes you are wearing? I think humans have an inbred system that combines facial recognition software with extra-sensory perception.

Here is where photography begins to flesh out its relationship to identity. Because photographs are made by people with their own communication issues, what they manifest in symbolic terms can be traced back to existing and willed openness on one hand, response to feedback on another, and to forces beyond knowing and beyond control. Photography must be made to serve the idea of identity, because it is not inherently capable of explaining itself symbolically. What I mean by this is that photography is mute and incapable of intention. Cameras may be astonishingly perceptive and increasingly able to override the poor choices of their human operators, but they are as yet unable to utilize unconscious motivations, unspoken passions, invisible prejudices, or emotional dysfunction in any mechanical sense. Context becomes the signifier.

Next: The Mirror and Identity.


A Johari window exercise

Rudisill – Mirror Image

Szarkowski – Mirrors and Windows

Farrah Karapetian’s good essay, “Reframing Mirrors and Windows” in issue 7 of The Highlights