We love portraiture for the myriad ways it can portray, obscure, represent and mystify. The subject’s eyes are usually the most powerful ingredient, suggesting personality and humanity, followed by facial expressions and gestures. Michelle Cade’s photographs purposefully deprive us of all three, challenging us to reassess what a portrait conveys and asking us to see what else it might communicate. A secondary issue is her methodology. She used a 4×5 view camera with film, and makes contact prints, an antiquated process that requires chemical baths and handling each piece of film individually. These two major issues, obscuring the subjects’ identities and employing an outdated, labor intensive process, tells us something about the artist’s intention and affect how we read and understand the images.
The best photography does not coddle the viewer nor comfort our conventional ideas. It challenges and demands we be active participants in the process of communication and expression. One aspect of reading a photograph is the visceral power we experience when ‘seeing’ it, another is how we interpret what we see. Images with easy access and easy answers are great for billboard ads and snapshots, but artists like Cade demand an active viewer that is willing to challenge the passive culture that has arisen with our great technological advancements. Her images are not simulations, nor representations, but wholly new objects, discreetly separate and completely of her own making. She has blindfolded her subjects and in a way she has blindfolded us too. Paradoxically, the result does not diminish our senses as much as heighten them, encouraging a more active reading than might otherwise occur.