For a long time, I have enjoyed going to museums and galleries to look at art. I suppose this became a favorite pastime when my wife, Gloria Ruff, and I lived in Rome, Italy during the 1970s. I was teaching sixth grade at the Notre Dame International School run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross. My wife was studying drawing, sculpture, and art history at The American College of Rome, and I often tagged along on field trips, which got us into some of the most beautiful museums, churches, and historical sites in all of Italy.
I also date from that time my abiding interest in looking at people look at art. My fondness for observing people as they look at art may be related to the pleasure I find in watching people write. Such activities, in different ways, make thinking visible. I love what thinking looks like on a person’s face, and how one can read it sometimes in a person’s body language. Over time, the history of what a person thinks, feels, sees, wonders about, inscribes itself on that person’s face.
On one occasion, I had the distinct feeling that I, the eager observer of art and people looking at art, was the one being observed. This happened at a small photo exhibit the Art Department of Valparaiso University hosted in its Strimbu Gallery several years ago. I gave a talk for the opening of that exhibit, and this narrative draws on that talk.
What I went to see was an exhibit of photographic portraits by local Valparaiso photographer and neurologist Virgil DiBiase. It was an exhibit I found both deeply rewarding and deeply unsettling. Of course, the unsettling part was essential to the deeply rewarding part.
On my first visit to see the photographs, I was struck by the way DiBiase’s black and white portraits on either side of me transformed a long narrow hallway into something like a gauntlet. I felt somehow, simultaneously, the observer and the observed, or, at best, the beholder and the beheld. I fear it is one of those experiences where you really have to be in the gallery to feel the full effect, but I will do my best here to replicate it.
There is a game my wife and I like to play in museums and galleries. In a particular room, we pretend we get to take just one of the works home. Not only do we make our own picks, but we also try to guess what the other will choose. You can do this yourself now: imagine I have it in my power to award you a large high-quality print of any of the images we have reproduced for this article. Go ahead: choose one.
I would be amazed if anyone picks the obese man photographed sitting on a bench (figure 1). This man gave Virgil DiBiase permission to take his picture. That is the case with all the photographs in the exhibit, from which we have chosen seven to show you. No photographs were taken before a relationship had been formed between DiBiase and his subject. Were this street photography as practitioners of that genre have come to define it, I could not make that claim, because, and this is something DiBiase explained to me, the street photographer remains an anonymous observer, not in a personal relationship with human beings who happen into the frame. But this is a portrait, taken with permission, initiated by the artist, Virgil DiBiase.
Were this photo journalism, it is likely this photo would have been taken for rhetorical effect, to support an argument or advocate for a cause. The Brauer Museum of Valparaiso University has a marvelous collection of Farm Security Administration Photographs by some of this nation’s most famous photographers, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Arthur Rothstein among them, and all of those photographs were posed, shot, and circulated to foster support for specific welfare programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. When I see the dirt and grime in this man’s shirt, I am reminded of some of those photographs.
But Virgil DiBiase is not a photo journalist, and I don’t see in his portraits a social or political agenda. I think his project is bigger and goes deeper than that. My hunch is this: we don’t want to take this photograph home (or even take this photograph) because typically, let’s be honest, this man—obese, poorly groomed, dirty, probably smelly—is not someone we want to get close to and personal with, as Virgil DiBiase had to do to take this photo. Typically, if we live comfortably, part of that comfort comes from not having to look such a man in the eye. We do not have to see him or smell him or talk to him, and for most of us that’s ok. DiBiase had to somehow get this man to give his permission to be photographed, for DiBiase to record the fact that this man lives and breathes and suffers. This photograph gives evidence to the fact that this man is human, and is or was some mother’s son, maybe someone’s brother. We get that most, I think, in the eyes. He is not eye to eye with the photographer, but the eyes are not averted either. Unlike most of the photos in the exhibit, this one is vertical, and shot from far enough back to get the whole man, and the whole embodied truth of this man sitting somewhere on a park bench. This is the first image I saw in the exhibit, and I thought it a shrewd curatorial decision, whoever made it. I love the happy accident of the letters “WE” on the bench. The man’s body obscures the rest of that word if it is only a fragment. But what a powerful juxtaposition, this man, whom I imagine largely isolated, alienated and marginalized, so unbearably, hugely other, next to the word “WE” and all that that pronoun evokes. It is a great introduction to the exhibit, for the way it both invites one into relation with the subject even as it draws up and challenges our instincts to be repelled by him.
If you look at the image of the man, you cannot not notice the position of his one hand under his belt. I cannot look at that detail and not see Napoleon with his hand inserted in his waistcoat, which especially in the nineteenth century seemed a conventional male pose to strike. I don’t see this man as “posed,” but that detail still serves to remind me that there is a history of portraiture that goes back to the ancient Egyptians, who believed the spirit most resides, and travels exclusively, in the face, hence their invention of the first frontal life-like portraits in the history of art. Portraits existed then to do spiritual work, and that is the work DiBiase’s portraits do for me. I look at this image of this man seated and images of seated popes and doges, princes and presidents come to mind, all the way back to the Renaissance and forward to the famous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. That all hovers in the personal Google Cloud that is my memory of images as I behold this man not on a papal throne but on a park bench somewhere. This photo records the fact that someone met him somewhere and wanted to take his picture. Someone not only saw and engaged him but recorded a moment in their brief relationship. “Ecce homo” is what Pilate said when he presented the beaten and scourged Jesus to that mob of men and women who wanted him dead: “Ecce homo” in the Latin Vulgate editions, meaning “Behold the Man.”
When I passed down the gauntlet of the Strimbu Gallery with Virgil DiBiase as my guide, I realized that the men and women who looked back at me over DiBiase’s shoulder were not of the sort you meet at a gallery opening on a college campus. Nor were they people who go to a studio to be photographed. DiBiase sought them out, in their world and in their habitats. Sometimes the background would be out of focus and almost stripped away, which tends to make DiBiase’s subjects seem universal. Other times DiBiase would locate them in their richly inscribed settings. Sometimes they wear their settings in their faces or upon their bodies.
Here is a portrait that won’t inspire a bidding war for its acquisition (figure 2). Why? In the image you see, the man is face to face with DiBiase, but not eye to eye. The eyes, for me, don’t come to a focus; there is something not right in this man’s eyes, which, if we read them as windows to the man’s soul, indicates all is not right there either. I am not speaking as a moralist here nor as a diagnostician. The gaze passes over the photographer; it looks to me like he is listening to or listening for something. This is how I imagine John the Baptist appearing (at least in a Pasolini film)—looking both mystical and mad. And the hand and arm reaching into the frame—but for what purpose? It is not a fist, thankfully. Does it reach out in support? Does it point? I am reminded here of Byzantine images of Christ with the forearm and hand of God the Father reaching down into the image over his son’s head. This hand comes from the side, not from above. Does it belong to his brother in Christ? To his Good Samaritan? Clearly, this is a man living on the streets. There is trauma in his face, or a vision. We would likely call it a delusion. I wonder what conversation passed between DiBiase and this man.
A friend of mine told a story about his brother that may be apropos here. This is many years ago when that brother worked late at night, and it was dangerous on the subway and even more dangerous walking home through the Bowery in New York City to his apartment. After being mugged several times, he took to protecting himself by affecting the look and gait and mannerisms of someone developmentally disabled, because he realized muggers typically didn’t want to mess with disabled people because they don’t really want to touch them, or in any way engage with them. Virgil doesn’t seem to have this aversion, or has somehow overcome it. He becomes our guide, like his namesake Virgil, Dante’s guide through The Inferno and Purgatorio in The Divine Comedy.
As must be obvious by now, I find the images deeply engaging and deeply spiritual.
Though DiBiase claims he finds subjects for portraits wherever he goes, this particular exhibit revealed DiBiase’s special attraction to the American Southwest. I was not surprised to learn DiBiase finds so many of his subjects in New Mexico. New Mexico is described on that state’s license plate as a “Land of Enchantment,” and I think anyone who has spent even a short time there can somehow feel that. It strikes me as a deeply spiritual place, and that spirit is a strange combination of indigenous and Christian influences that go back centuries, that somehow hybridized in the soil of this stark, unforgiving landscape. Add in certain New Age influences, laminated on top of the influence of artists and writers who were drawn to this setting at the turn of the twentieth century out of their shared disillusionment with a spiritually impoverished modernity, and you have that “enchantment” in spades. DiBiase finds it and shows it to us in the faces of the subjects he encounters.
Were I writing an article about the deeply Franciscan look and feel of Virgil DiBiase’s portraits, this would be my frontispiece (figure 3). This man has the desert etched into his features, but the look in the eyes captures for me the influence of a mystical tradition that goes back not only to the Hopi and to the Navajo but also to the Desert Fathers of the third century who planted the seeds for the Christian monastic tradition in the Egyptian desert.
New Mexico provides a landscape whose fierceness we see reflected in several incredible portraits. It is the landscape that gave us Geronimo, after all, and the atomic bomb. It is also this landscape that has inspired some of the best writing by Cormac McCarthy; I am thinking especially of a book that got made into a fairly good movie that gives as its title a great description to this place: No Country for Old Men. Cormac McCarthy is a great American writer—I think of him as the Faulkner of our era—who is equally gifted in rendering human nobility and human depravity. I would put the ratio of evil to goodness in a McCarthy novel at about fifty to one. I see the man in this image (front cover of issue) and think of Cormac McCarthy. There is such dignity and strength in the look of this seated man and such character isolated on a strangely misplaced chair in a dark passageway. Besides that man, my eye is drawn both to his hat, and what evidence it bears of a hard life lived under the sun and stars, and that Styrofoam cup, icon of our cheap, throwaway consumerist world.
That Styrofoam cup links this photo to another one I like, this one of a couple (figure 4, next page). So many of DiBiase’s photos depend upon a face-to-face encounter between subject and artist and, over the artist’s shoulder, the viewer. This one depends upon a face-to-face encounter within the photo. I love the looks these two give each other. So much depth and history and strength is revealed on both sides of this encounter. Again, the Styrofoam cup between them seems a perfect counterpoint, in its cheapness, in its fragility, to these two whose looks are so knowing, so wise, and so strong. It is the Navajo pattern of the women’s jacket that connects this image for me not just to the locale of the Southwest but to ancient traditions still vital there. Also observe the man’s jacket: is it too much of a stretch to connect that pattern to the traditional plaid of some Scottish clan? Whatever “-ville” we are inhabiting in the image, for whatever cattle fair or traveling circus, or Pow Wow that has come there, Sunday afternoon bingo is as Catholic as it gets, even if it is at the Lion’s Club. This is an image that gives greater comfort than most, an image of people in relationship. At the heart of America’s greatness as a culture, first observed by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his canonical text, Democracy in America, is our great aptitude and appetite natural to a nation of immigrants to create and join voluntary associations such as the one named in this photo, the Lion’s Club. For all our Emersonian, libertarian individualism, our real American genius is for working together. The United Way is an American invention; so is the public library and its great, great grandchild the World Wide Web.
This comes from another setting—I am betting Miami because of the rum drink on the right. No one in the Southwest drinks their cocktail out of glass such as that one. Plus the skyscraper in the background is not Southwestern. It is Christmas time, or some time past Christmas when cheap Christmas decorations begin to look particularly tawdry. But the man is sitting outside in nothing but his sleeveless undershirt enjoying his leisure. He is about to enjoy his drink, a moment which is all the more appealing for the way he self-identifies himself as a working man with his tattoo. He has a sort of leanness and fierceness in his face and features and markings, but in combination with that a beauty and even voluptuousness, which I see especially in his posture, his eyebrows, his full rich lips. This man looks to me to be Cuban or Cuban-American by his features, and I love the sense of character and swagger conveyed in how he wears his hat. I think there is such power in this image of a man at rest, and such depth behind the glistening surfaces, and also a sense of the uncanny, which is a feature I often find in Virgil’s photos. The sign for “13th Street” seems too good to be true, too fitting not to have been Photoshopped in, but I trust that is not the case. And I try to imagine what it took from DiBiase, to build the rapport that made this image possible. What does this image say to us about DiBiase’s way, to get this man to be so relaxed and so self-revealing?
And finally, this one (figure 6). I am so drawn to the hard-earned worldly wisdom and holiness of this man’s face, to the tired and tried but generous soul that lives in these eyes. It is not just wisdom that resides there, but compassion acquired though endurance and suffering, carved into this man’s features. The world has marked this man, but not defeated him. And I can’t imagine this silent communicative act, this exchange, really, this revelation, without imagining a similar look, or conversation, that would communicate somehow the full human presence attending to this man from behind the camera. That chain link fence behind the man is richly communicative of all the things that separate us, that make our relations abstract rather than personal. I love how Virgil DiBiase’s photos attempt, and often succeed, in getting us through or beyond such fences.
John Ruff is Professor of English at Valparaiso University. More of Virgil DiBiase’s photography can be found at vdibiase.zenfolio.com.