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A Unique Reflection of Identity

By Zachary Levin

Posted September 20, 2000

Voyeur in the desert
“I think the doctor is the ultimate voyeur,” says 43-year-old Mark Kessell, MD. He should know: 12 years ago he hung up his stethoscope in his native Australia, declaring medical practice the most “soul-deadening” period of his life, in order to specialize in the photographic technique of daguerreotype. As a physician, Kessell had found the constant parade of sick people oppressive, and realized he was unsuited for that work. Besides, as he explains it, “90% of the time you knew what was wrong with them when they walked through the door.” He traveled continually, read obsessively, and after giving up medicine, delved into everything from equestrian training to French philosophy. “I was definitely searching for something,” he says now, looking back on those quixotic years as if they were a latent image.

It wasn't until his late 30s, however, on an extensive solo tour through the Australian desert, that the image began to develop. In that desolate landscape one can go for weeks without seeing another person, or a sign that anyone's ever passed through. “That kind of solitude is very rare on the planet these days,” Kessell says. Driving through the seemingly sterile desert, he'd pull over, get out of his car, and simply stand, watch, and listen. Gradually life revealed itself: he noticed ants toiling beneath his feet, heard birds he couldn't see, glimpsed iguanas and lizards scurrying over the sand. An orthodox atheist, Kessell's time alone on the oldest continent and one of the emptiest places on Earth “catalyzed my first spiritual experiences. . . I felt part—a very small part—of a greater scheme,” he says. “It's the closest equivalent I can think of to having faith to fill that spiritual emptiness.”

In his youth, Kessel was adamantly against taking pictures, believing that anything “worth remembering would be remembered,” but by the time he embarked on his tour, he found that details from his past had gone missing. His girlfriend insisted that he take a disposable camera along, thus Kessell had a photographic record of his awakening. When he came home and developed his film, he was astounded by what he saw. “I had no idea what a shutter speed or an aperture was,” he admits, “yet the pictures captured something of the places I went, not just what it looked like but the feeling of it.”

Kessell was quickly humbled, though, when he began the learning process in earnest. Perhaps his medical training had engendered a sort of hubris that convinced him he could read books on photographic techniques and, presto, take beautiful pictures. Kessell regards his early work as technically flawless, but rigid, as if he were working out of the scientific method. Discovering the substance in his subject, moving beneath the flesh and blood—rather than “examining a person like a bug on a pin”—has been his greatest challenge as an artist. He's not convinced that he's overcome a scientific bias, but “I try every time I pick up a camera.” It's a long-term commitment; he's steadfast in his decision to make photography his life's work.

In 1997 he moved to New York and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts' master of fine arts program. That a middle-aged man enraptured by the trackless desert would move to the most claustrophobic island imaginable is unexpected. But he's thrived in New York, calling it the “most intensely creative place there is.” His first solo exhibition opened last week at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in the city's Chelsea district.

An inquiry into identity
Ironically, a course on digital photography, with its infinite capacity for reproduction and distribution, ignited Kessell's interest in ancient imaging technology. A daguerreotype has no negative, so each plate is unique. “In the post-Dolly era,” Kessell explains, “when so much—even the genetic code—is plastic and mutable, we crave a metaphorical haven: an un-clone-able art in a sea of reproducibility.”

If you treated a silver-coated copper plate with iodine, exposed it to light in a camera, and developed the image in darkness with warm mercury vapor, then you'd be conducting the eponymous process of Frenchman Louis Mandé Daguerre, who published it in 1839. Kessell's method is identical to that of the daguerreotypists of 1852, the year bromine was discovered. Before that, exposures took many minutes; bromine shortened the exposure time of the plate, making photographic portraits practical for the first time.

Although the daguerreotype process uses mercury vapor, which is widely known to be deadly, bromine is actually the most lethal element involved. It corrodes virtually anything except Teflon and glass, and has almost all the same properties as chlorine. Chronic inhalation can produce a host of neurological symptoms including slurring, drowsiness, tremors, ataxia, and dullness. Skin eruptions are common as well. For Kessell, the reward is worth the risks. The daguerreotype has an illusory, holographic depth, capturing detail to an almost unnerving degree. The silver plate is reflective, so that depending on the angle of light, the viewer's own image is mirrored in the photograph. Its very nature is elusive—immediate yet distant.

Daguerreotype is a suitable medium for Kessell's primary artistic interest: an inquiry into identity, but from a measured distance. Western Australia—a region one-third the size of the continental US with the population of West Virginia—surely influenced Kessell's sense of the metaphorical separation between himself and others. This sense of personal distance was also fostered by the photographer's scientifically-oriented family. They were close-knit, but unemotional; he describes his upbringing as “somewhat clinical.”

Medicine may have been the wrong career for Kessell, but its imprint on his art is undeniable. His photographs are primarily of body parts—hands, eyes, hair, feet, genitalia, and blurred faces—but never the full form, bearing the traces of a doctor's probing detachment. Kessell's images are not unfeelingly observed, however. Instead they represent his conception of “unknowability.” We are intrinsically isolated from each other, Kessell believes, “separated like islands or single-celled organisms,” due to the impossibility of being in intimate contact with ourselves. At best, Kessell's art suggests, we have a fragmentary understanding of each other. Yet our desire for closeness and connection drives much of our behavior. Indeed, Kessell's daguerreotypes are not only his art but also his attempt to reach out to others, which he admits has not always come easily to him.

In a memorable self-portrait (titled “Self-Portrait II,” in his “Stranger Inside” series), Kessell shows himself seated: a naked, wiry torso, his hand placed over half of his lean, down-turned face; a grim mouth, hair shaved to the skull. He could be suffering from a migraine, or perhaps remembering something terrible—that we're born alone, live alone, and die alone. He resembles Rodin's Thinker, only with a chronic case of angst-ridden depression, the hand no longer able to fully support the weight of his heavy head.

Looking at the daguerreotype, moving left to right, back and forth, the viewer may find the reflective plate turning his visage into Kessell's and vice versa. It may become unclear who is who. After a while, both images may become disturbingly alien.

“No matter how intimately we try to approach each other,” says Kessell, “we are forever separate . . . We are as unknowable as the stars, offering only fragments to the gaze of others.”

©2000 Praxis Press Inc., all rights reserved.


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