Mask as Descriptive Concept


Price, Mary. ‘Mask as Descriptive Concept’ The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 117-133


[…] what Barthes and other writers have done is to bring within the range of possibility an acknowledgment on the part of the rest of us that what they have discovered and named must exist for us too. They cannot name our precise wound; they can only name their own; but we may now with tentative assurance begin to understand what their use of their photographs was. They have invested photographs with meaning; their language directs us to the idea of unseen truth in the photograph.

Awareness of metaphor in the use of mask, even the most literal, is almost irrepressible in the case of the photograph as opposed to painting.


The reason for the difference in our regard lies in the notion of the photograph as a transcription of the real, the photograph thus becoming itself the mask concealing what is behind it and thwarting confrontation with the real.


[Price discusses Barthes’s use of Avedon’s photograph of William Casby]

William Casby: Born in Slavery © 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation


This photograph suggests a mask because it looks like one.

The position vis-a-vis the viewer is as if the head were pinned on a bare wall at eye level. The mask is the “essence” of slavery because, according to Barthes, it is “the product of a society and of its history.” In less exalted prose, the more appropriate word might have been “typical,” and Casby’s photographed face-mask might have represented the type, slave.


Barthes is using “mask” in the large sense of that disguise inherent in the process of making a photograph. The removal of what might well go back to Lucretius to name, the film or skin of appearance, creates a mask by the act of removal.  The photograph is the film or skin of appearance. At the very least it calls attention to the fact of being a mask (transcribed from reality) by removal.

In addition, the removal of the mask not only certifies its existential “maskness” but because it looks exactly as real objects look, or as we have learned to see them, the mask is taken as true depiction of those objects.


Once again, the reason we take it as true depiction is that the photograph bears a strict and necessary relationship to its source in the visible world.


This way of using mask is very like the use of the word veil before photography was invented. It is an acknowledgement that perception is imperfect, lack of epistemological certainty is the norm; we always envision as we see. The emphasis is on the impenetrability of the particular, the individual. With a shift of emphasis, the individual can represent a type (for example in the photographs by August Sander or Sir Benjamin Stone).

The other, literal, use of “mask” is the particular face-covering that conceals what is behind it when it is attached to the face by ties behind the head or hooks over the ears or when it is more substantially made to fit over the entire head and sit on the shoulders. By metaphoric extension it is the literal covering that conceals anything.

Barthes has invested mask with both the literal and extended metaphoric meanings.

Mask is a concept often used about photography and photographs; one meaning may be dominant, but all possible meanings are implicit unless the definition is expressly limited.

[Price discusses Walker Evans’s ‘Subway portraits’ taken by a concealed camera]


Here the outer appearance is taken as mask of the true inner being, a mask wrought by the will of the person who displays it but a mask penetrated by the photographer, or, as [James] Agee suggests, dropped by the subject.

The photograph has removed and preserved the “film,” which is the photograph.


In Barthes’s discourse it was thought of as the removed mask. In Evan’s subway photographs, however, the suggestion is that Evans has been able to surprise the subjects without their usual masks, without their conscious presentation of self. They are stripped of properties, personal context, and private setting. They have no names, past , or future. Their exposure without masks reveals macabre isolated individuals looking at nothing. Yet if they have no pose (are unaware of the camera), they have stubborn individuality.


Another kind of mask occurs in an Arbus photograph called A house on a hill, Hollywood, CA. 1963, in which a pure facade, visibly supported behind by a strutwork of scaffolding, is silhouetted against a mackerel sky lit by a setting sun.

The facade is a mask with nothing behind it. It is a Hollywood structure made to give the illusion of a house, but the photograph, by including the supports in the rear, deliberately exposes the elements of the illusion, destroying one effect to create another.

A house on a hill, Hollywood, CA. 1963 (C) Diane ArbusArbus’s total acceptance of the wounds both inflicted and endured by humans is illustrated in photographs that display the wounds as if they were the norm, creating a disbalance between mask-photograph and reality-wound. But is nature also complitious? One seems to be asked to lie in wait with Arbus until the veil is rent for a second and the trauma both of nature and of person is exposed. the visual affect , however, is not of complicity but of indifference on the part of nature.

Nature is both removed and awesome and yet can be made to stand still for a picture in which it will suggest the impersonality of the natural world.


Richard Avedon and his models tend to know who they are. How they are is the modern question. Photographs are less an answer than a reflection of the questions, a way of resisting the flux of time so as to contemplate the questions.

No Responses Yet to “Mask as Descriptive Concept”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s