The camera, we say, shows us the world it is pointed at. A mechanical representation of the world, it nevertheless presumes a degree of agency in the assumption that the camera lens fragments and frames the world, and someone has done the pointing. In this sense, it is an art. The mirror, however, presumes an enhanced degree of objectivity and a relative degree of passivity inasmuch as it literally reflects back everything within its purview. Lacking any obvious agency it is assumed to be fundamentally inartistic and thus arguably more “authentic.” Or at least that’s one theory of the relationship between the gazes of the camera’s lens and the mirror. But what happens when we photograph the mirror’s gaze?
Photographs of the mirror’s gaze are not uncommon and they are offer provocative examples of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls “showing seeing,” a pedagogical strategy for challenging the boundaries between nature and art, or what we might call the “real” and the “image.” The two photographs below are a case in point.
This first image is of Palestinians “reflected in mirrors as they sat outside a store in Gaza City.”
The mirrors have been affixed to a wall, one set within an octagonal frame, the other a simple shard of glass. Importantly, they are triangulated and connected to one another by what appears to be a broken picture frame, its matted image slipping out of sight. The difference between mirror and photograph are thus accented; mirrors can be framed, just like photographs, but even when the mirror’s frame is broken or missing, as with the shard of glass, it continues to relentlessly reflect its gaze back to the viewer. But even as the difference is underscored it is effaced, for what the photograph we are looking at shows is how the mirror is a medium for representing social relationality, framed by its very placement on a wall in a public place. Put differently, mirrors—like photographs—are an artifice by which we take account of our self presentation to the world, and that abides whether the mirror is mounted in our private hallway or in the agora of public relations.
The point is made somewhat differently in this second image of people “reflected at a shopping center in downtown Tokyo.”
Here, the photograph displays the mirrors reflections of a shopping center as a fragmented panorama of people coming and going in every which way. Because the glass is cut in a variety of geometric forms that are then welded together at odd different angles, the reflection is simultaneously real and imaginary. Each fragment (or shard?) is accurate in its representation, but the articulation of those fragments leaves us with a scene that is chaotic if not altogether incoherent. And so, once again, the viewer is confronted with the artificial—and hence artistic—representation of the mirror’s gaze. And once again, the very public location of the mirrors puts us in position to take account of ourselves as social beings.
That social self in these two images seems to be very different, and there is no doubt that that difference bears careful consideration. But the bigger point here is how these photographs of the mirror’s gaze remind us of the similarities between cameras and mirrors and the ways in which they function as artistic, reflexive spaces for monitoring ourselves, whether in private or in public.
Photo Credits: Mohammed Salem/Reuters; Koji Sashahara/AP