Off With Their Heads!

April 10, 2012

blue dress

I came back the green market a couple weeks ago with four images that I was pleased with and represent a new direction for me…or an old one revisited. Out of the four images, three feature tight crops and headless subjects. What’s up with that? I am wondering how many images with decapitated people I will be able to stand before getting bored and making an about face for the comfort of docu-street photography. Yet when I think about photographs with faceless subjects it becomes very clear what they achieve.

In the pre-photography days of canvas and paint, beguiling naked women stared out from their still world at centuries of viewers. Eye contact was not even thought about because, after all, it was just a painting…a mere facsimile of reality. Along came photography with its ability to record actual things and events, truthfully and in great detail. The rules of the game changed. In this gallery of twenty-one of Edward Weston’s nudes, we can only confirm the identity of five of the models. The tradition of headless nudes persists through
Imogen Cuningham’s 1956 study, to Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1982 male nude.
The purpose is quite obvious; when we make eye contact the experience becomes personal. No longer are we looking at a figure study of form and light, we are looking at a naked person whom we might recognize if we encountered them at the mall.

Another long-accepted use for headless subjects is in demonstrations. How-to guides commonly feature models cropped from just below the neck down to the hands, usually demonstrating a technique on a workbench or table. Cropping heads off allows a tighter focus on the details of the demonstration itself. In an effort to cut to the chase and convey information quickly and efficiently, we don’t have time for personal relationships with models. Seeing their faces would only add one more thing for us to relate to. Humans have a fascination with each other. The classic portraits of Yousuf Karsh hold our attention as we examine every detail of his subjects’ faces.

Other ways of making subjects anonymous are by showing backs of people or hiding faces in shadow. There are also plenty of cropped heads in street photography as well, from both classic and contemporary photographers. Cropped heads offer the ability to create tight, abstract compositions based on form rather than content. They can also leave us wanting to know more about the subject. Photographs featuring headless subjects do have a place, but in street photography they are best resorted to as an occasional device.


TOP: Blue Dress, West Palm Beach 2012

ABOVE: Dogface, West Palm Beach 2004


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