Cultural anthropologists have long held that facial symmetry is one of the prime criteria by which we judge other people’s attractiveness. So where does that leave people with asymmetrical faces? Massachusetts-based photographer Sage Sohier takes on this question in her exhibition About Face—a regrettably trite title for a thoughtful and often unsettling show.
For three years, Sohier photographed patients receiving physical therapy for partial facial paralysis at a Boston clinic. Some were stroke survivors, some had Bell’s palsy, others had damaged facial nerves due to accidents or congenital conditions. A few subjects, such as 16-year-old with his parents and Man with a beard, had only mild paralysis and could pass for people simply making pensive expressions. Others, such as Woman in floral print, had more severely drooping mouths and baggy eyelids or crossed eyes, as in 6-year-old boy with his mother.
These portraits are as much about our reactions as they are about the subjects themselves. On opening night, I overheard a snippet of a heated exchange between two gallerygoers: “I take exception to your even using the terms ‘perfection’ and ‘imperfection,’” one of them said. Which gets to the point: What is normal or abnormal, attractive or unattractive, and who the hell are we to judge? Along the continuum of reactions, some people will inevitably feel sympathy or pity. Others may feel self-satisfaction (to which they would probably not admit) at not having these conditions themselves. Ageists may feel tenderly toward the children photographed, such as 7-year-old girl with her mother, but not toward craggy-skinned senior citizens such as Man with his wife.
No question, Sohier’s lens offers a viewfinder into our own prejudices. If we don’t like what we see, hopefully by the time we leave the gallery, we’ll have grown at least a little more accepting. Notably, the most engaging portraits are those in which the subjects are smiling: Woman in striped shirt and Young man with his service dog and father. These pieces show us how that glorious, spontaneous flash of lips, teeth and gums lies at the heart of what we hold inside, regardless of our packaging.
SEE IT: About Face is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Through Sept. 1.