Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hands Tell the Story, or Do They?

I'm in Manhattan for a quick two-day visit and this morning I headed straight for Sotheby's auction house to get a look at the exhibition of "A Show of Hands: Photographs from the Collection of Henry Buhl."
This photograph from the collection is by Herbert Bayer, called "Lonely Metropolitan"

Here's what the Sotheby's catalogue has to say about this amazing collection:

Sotheby’s is pleased to announce the sale of A Show of Hands: Photographs from Collection of Henry Buhl.  The Buhl Collection comprises one of the most significant collections of photographs in private hands today.  Put together with wit, perception, and passion by Henry M. Buhl, the collection shows the hand in a variety of roles—as a vehicle for emotion, an object of scientific study, and a metaphor for the human condition, among many others.  Using hands as a focal point, the collection spans the evolution of the photographic medium, from the 1840s to the present day. 

As you know if you saw my blog post "Found Art -- A Magical Show of Hands"  back in April, I've been fascinated by representations of hands for a long time and have been collecting them -- especially folk art versions, like the "Hand of Christ".  I don't collect hand photographs--although many of my early daguerreotypes show portraits of people with very strange arrangements of their hands, because early photographers spent a great deal of time posing the hands so they would look graceful and not overly large (or foreshortened.)

Henry Buhl's collection of photographs is going on sale at Sotheby's starting tomorrow, Weds. Dec. 12 , as well as two more sessions on Thursday.  I will not be there--I'll be back in Massachusetts, and the estimates on these photographs range from $500 to tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars--putting them all a little above my collecting budget.

But seeing the exhibit reminded me once again how  hands are so laden with emotion, so revealing of character, so completely charged with  meaning,  that after looking at some of the hundreds in the exhibit I was exhausted and emotionally drained.  (Think babies' hands, dismembered hands, bleeding hands, hands caressing and killing, politicians and street beggars extending their hands, rock fans waving their hands in the air, mothers' hands holding out starving babies, fashion models and dancers' hands--and a lot of erotica as well.)

Well, it was quite a morning, but it also got me to thinking about why hands fascinate me so.  

Because I paint portraits, I often cut out of newspapers images of people in the grip of great emotion,  (because you can't get a model to mimic true emotion and hold it) and I've noticed that when people suddenly see something horrific, they almost always put their hand over their mouth.  Like this:

Getty Images

This happens to be a photo of Princess Maxima and Prince Willem Alexander of the Dutch royal family, reacting in horror in May of 2009 when an attacker drove a car into a crowd of spectators.  But if you come across a news photo of bystanders reacting to, say, a corpse in the street, or a terrible accident, you'll see they all have a hand over their mouth. Why?  Why do we instinctively do this?

from Vanity Fair
And here's another photo that caught my attention.  It's President Obama in the situation room telling his security advisers that he has launched the raid that ultimately succeeded in killing Bin Laden.  Notice that every man among his listeners has his hand over his mouth--not in horror, but what are they saying?  Only Hillary is not doing this, but later, when Obama and advisers are watching the raid live on the screen, she has her hand over her mouth in what looks like horror.

I suggest that in the first photo the men listening--the security advisers--are dubious about the  wisdom of the raid but are not about to say anything.  Or perhaps they're afraid it will fail and don't want to share that.  What do you think this gesture, which is sort of a "I'm-thinking-hard" pose, really mean?

That's all I have to say right now about hands, but seeing the Buhl  collection in person was not only exhausting, it was also inspiring, and the photographer in me wants to try a whole lot of new ways to photograph hands to tell a story.

1 comment:

CJ Kennedy said...

I wonder if the hand over the mouth when something horrific happens comes from the same reaction about covering one's mouth when one coughs or sneezes? Usually one's mouth is opened or opened slightly. Covering the mouth prevents the devil from jumping in.