Terrified by what they get to see there in the dark, they seem to call for help. Such terror cannot but be released in a scream:
The closed eyes have locked out the dark. In vain: it resurges in the void of the wide-open mouth. The darkness in which the eyes were staring, finds its counterpart in the silence wherein that scream resounds – and where it equally remains unheard.
But they soon come to support an empty gaze. No longer moved by what it sees, it stares vacantly into the void:
Although the hands seem to support the discouraged head, it is rather the cheeks that seek the warmth in the palms of the hands. And so does also the shoulder that wants to be held:
So do equally the knees of the legs that are pulled up as a shelter against the breast and on which the heavy head is resting:
or the ankles around the protectively pulled up legs:
When we zoom in on the face again, we see how the hands not only buttress that falling head, but also gently touch its temple:
And also how the forearms protect the vulnerable face as with a concrete wall. At the same time, a subtle shift has taken place. The movement with which one eye is peeping in the light is compensated with the withdrawal of the other in the shadow of the sheltering
When we finally try to force an entry to what might loom up there in the dark behind the pupil, we only get to see the white of an eyeball that has turned its pupil away – inward:
Strange though, how, in the photography of William Ropp, of all things the eye, that very organ of the photographer, does not want to look and turns out to be impenetrable.
Until the body finally bluntly turns its nude skull to the photographer’s eye:
For, here, we stumble upon the nude skin: sheer surface, isolating its massive content from the outer world. And that skin is
only really transformed into a genuine impenetrable surface through that remarkable lighting of William Ropp: not otherwise than the eye that approaches the body from the most diverse angles, the light is shining on the body from often opposite corners – which cannot fail to remind of Rodin, who, at night, used to sneak around his sculptures with a candle in his hand.
In fact, in his introduction to his new book 'Children', William Ropp
reveals that he often leaves his model in the complete darkness before
the camera, and then, lighting it with an old Czech pocket light, begins
a kind of propitiatory dance - an 'invocation of the heathen god Photon'.
One of the possible effects of this technique is that the skin, under which otherwise the running of the blood in the veins and the breathing of the chest, already according to Hegel, did have us descry the presence of the spirit, is now lent the appearance of
With hindsight, we discover that, in many a picture, the expressive power of William Ropp’s faces derives from the fact that its expressive traits are folds in an utterly impenetrable skin. Through so demonstratively referring the expression to the surface, an inner being is conjured up that cannot possibly reconcile itself with its incarnation:
Behind her back, the girl above holds her upper arms in the grip of both hands, as if to protect herself from adopting a posture that would more naturally become her: to cross her arms on her chest. What her face, with that nearly deformed mouth and those two eyes lighted differently, is telling so eloquently, goes hidden in dark shadows in the photos below:
Until, after the gesticulating hands that disappear behind the back, also the face is framed out of the picture – apart from the wide-open mouth that shimmers through the frame. What horrifying messages does not that speechless trunk convey!
Ecce homo! The comparison with Rodin’s ‘Celle qui fût le belle Heaulmière’ imposes itself. Although it also reveals how much the art of William Ropp is an art of light: the same surfaces and volumes, lit differently, would have conjured up a totally different world.
And although William Ropp does not blame aging. Which does not prevent that he equally knows how to catch the misery of old age in the image, albeit in a totally different vein:
THE ENIGMATIC BODY
Those enigmatic contorted bodies enclose a new opening: the void confined within the stretched limbs. And that void gapes equally in the body of the man that, in a converse inward contortion, is rolling up upon himself:
As if the drama around the eyes and the mouth is restaged around another opening: not that in which the soul emerges, but that from which all flesh proceeds. Gender is introduced. And it stays from the beginning under the sign of ambivalence. For, the same opening that emerges in the shadow of the biceps of the man, is covered with a plait in the enigmatic body of the woman below:
As if the body of the female is emerging in the male body, and the body of the male in the female body. Better still: as if the body is turned into the stage on which the drama that caused its birth is enacted.
AROUND THE UTERUS AND ITS MOUTH
Where the signs are subtly reversed: while the legs are centrifugally moving away from the hole, the hands are centripetally moving toward it, whereby it is not clear whether they are out at covering or at penetrating. The ambivalence is even stronger on the photo below, where the fingertips of both hands are joining above the vagina:
while on the background - at the opposite upper side of the body - the same proceedings can be seen on which William Ropp was zooming in above:
While the hands on the foreground hide from view the darkness in the hole from which all flesh proceeds, the hands on the background try in vain to find an entry to the soul through a crack in the skin over the flesh.
THE FISH AND ITS EYE
It is barely human: completely black, like that of the fish, and staring from a face without a forehead. The open mouth makes the similarity even more striking: it seems as if a fish were lying there at its last gasps. Only now do we understand what that skin really reminded us of: not so much of tanned leather, but rather of the unfeeling skin of a fish:
The skin of a fish is never stroked: fish have no hands. Their skin is a mere scaled
and slimy protective layer. Neither have they arms or legs:
they are predestined to embody the natural metamorphosis of the back
bereaved of its limbs depicted above.
The eyes and mouth of the girl are closed. Those of the fish stay wide open. And what is multiplied in the body of the girl, is undivided in the fish.
What is more: it does not move centrifugally away from the hole, but straightforward toward it. Thus, penetrating penis and gaping vagina are united
in one single being. The ambivalence of the movements around the opening is split and distributed over two beings: man and animal.
And, in the image below, the assimilation with the split off fish finds its counterpart in the hand that is laid upon the suspicious/accepting eye: as if the girl lays hands on the very source and goal of her existence:
The contrast is heightened in the image below, where the horn of the sharp beak, above which that insensitive eye is staring again, is echoed in the protecting cap - the eggshell – that covers the skull of the girl.* Also here does the girl lay her hand on the body of the bird. If she has to become an animal anyhow, then preferably in the manner of a bird: born and bearing out of an egg, without the merger of any genitals, outside the body:
And that sheds a new light on another photo of William Ropp, where the man wears little wings above his shoulder blades, that
obviously will never be able to lift him off the ground. The image gets its full impact only when compared with Rodin’s ‘L’âge de bronze’. While, with
Rodin, man is looking up at the skies, laying his hand on a forehead where the mind seems to awaken, with Ropp, the hand seems
trying to catch in the forehead of that downward looking face the reminiscence of times bygone when the wings on its back were still able to unfold in their full
The skin is no longer transforming in horn: it rather seems to mimic the grainy structure of woven cloth. Which does not prevent that, In the image below, remnants of the older metamorphoses loom up in the bony structure of the forehead and the horny structure of the nose:
And with that equally demonic figure below, the skin not only takes the grainy structure of the cloth over the head of the woman above: the skin over its skull is literally metamorphosing into horn:
Which does not prevent that, in many other pictures, it is just clothes that are supposed to protect the anxious or threatening face that is covered with them. In that sense, they usurp the role of the hands and the eyelids:
In rare cases the body appears in full apparel:
or an undershirt covers the breast of that vulnerable child:
On the photo below, finally, the man is not so much cross-dressed in female attire. Rather is he, safely protected behind his arm and lifted up leg, retiring on a chair as in a motherly envelope - if not in an eggshell, like an anxious, nearly hatched chick:
CHAIR, CHAMBER AND
The event is happening in the seclusion of a room. In the photo below it takes the organic shape of an uterus, while, at the same time, the armchair is reduced to a mere geometric skeleton, and the woman – whose opening is covered with a long sized object – is stretched to phallic proportions:
Even stronger is the conflict staged by the woman that presents her seductive legs, while disappearing under the womb. By turning her body away, she merely confirms that she is born out of a womb and is trying to escape her fate: were she to spray her legs wide, she would seamlessly be fitted in the endless row of wombs that bore one another:
To the effect that the seclusion of the room unfolds to the ominous stairwell, in which there is no escape from the inexorable descent in the flesh:
Whence the hesitating expectation behind the door:
But let us now, after our descent in
bygone evolutionary stages, and our sojourn in the realm of things that we created around us, pick up
the tread where we have lost it: in the opening surrounded with fingers and arms. For in view of the advent of generation, the relation with animals and things has something of a detour: rather
than animals and things had we expected the appearance of the sexual counterpart that turns the individual into a couple.
And the same goes for the man, that, nearer to the origin, seems to stare right in the opening between the legs – as if he were looking down on ‘Les portes de l’enfer’, like Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, of which the image that we used as a title to our text, cannot fail to remind. But we are looking down not so much on what is happening behind the doors of Dante’s hell, but on where it originates: in the very womb where all those who are driven in hell saw the light of day. Certainly, as with Dante, it is written above the gates: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza’. Although the sequel should not only read ‘voi che sortite!’, but also ‘voi che uscite!’. The man, however, does not look this darkness over the deep right in the face either: with his vacant stare he seems to gaze straight next to the void:
Also here do the hands come to the rescue of the evasive eyes: with the
same gesture with
which a little child clutches to its mother, they seek the warmth of the cheeks.
the same time, William Ropp's image reveals the utter falsity of the
countless images where the rosy flesh is exposed in all its details
before the gaze of the male. For, what is bluntly exposed there, is
merely the fetish of what is really to be seen between the legs: the
void of nothingness**.
A reversal in all the senses of the word.
As opposed to the lighting brightness of the marble: the darkness of the shadows.
As opposed to the heightened beauty of those juvenile bodies: seemingly
dull normality. As opposed to the son and his
mother: mother and son. Both masters have in common, though, that they seem not to be aware of the difference between the generations: just like Michelangelo’s mother could as well be the wife of her son, just so could the woman on the lap of Ropp’s man as well be his mother.
The gesture with which the hand of the man touches the cheek of the woman, immediately reminds us of the gesture with which the girl laid her hand on the fish: as if it were his new shape – his rebirth. This marvellous image is also the completed version of the enigmatic single body – its real origin: the enigmatic sight of the couple entwined. Another version of such enigmatic tangle of limbs has been painted by Picasso:
In the image below, a new version of the enigma appears. At first glance, we are dealing with a man and a woman, leaning against each other. But the head of the woman does not seem to fit in the image. It is severed form the trunk by dark shadows. It is as if, between the two heads of its parents, a third head is wriggling its way forward. And the shape of the arms that seem to pose as the opening from which every life is born, only endorses that interpretation:
In still other images, the encounter of the bodies is shortened to a hand touching a shoulder or a head. Which cannot but heighten the sexual and generational ambivalence. Is it the hand of the man or the father that supports the head of the woman or the daughter? And does not the contrast between even skin and wrinkled and veined skin mislead us into contrasting young and old?
Where it is two heads that encounter one another, a new enigma is introduced. Is it not mirror images that are screaming in each other’s mouth or approaching each other’s cheek?
The presence of the ear - the sole opening that has remained out of range up to now, announces, after the restoration of the splendour of the skin, the openness of the body:
The photo above is one of the few on which the legs are spread wide, showing the freely accessible vagina, and - still more remarkable: on which also the gaze seems to really look at us. And, although the eyes of the nude below are closed, they only do so to generously endorse the gesture with which the breast is presented:
And although, finally, the beautiful woman below, looking at us with her legs slightly spread open, nevertheless lets her head rest on her hand:
And that holds true especially in that marvellous photo with which we began our exploration in this text. Surely, it shows the anxious eyes of
a boy. But, on a closer look, the expressiveness derives from lighting in the first place: the eye seems to be turned in one giant pupil, and it is the shine upon that wide-open pupil that
lends the gaze its fragility. The effect is further enhanced through the shadow below
the nose, that opens as it were a third opening in the skull.
In other photos, it is, conversely, the light that seems to transfigure the subject. The body of the woman below seems to have become luminous. And that is made possible in that the void is driven out of the centre, upwards and downwards, where the hands and the fingers of those two centrifugal arms continue to perform the movement around the void, that has meanwhile become all too familiar to us:
In still other photos, it is the grainy structure of a rather evenly lighted surface that lends the body a kind of spiritual immateriality – and the paper on which it is printed that unheard-off sense of tactility:
Not to mention, finally, the mastery with which all those mortal bodies, as well as the light and shadows cast on them, are arranged within the frame of the rectangle. It suffices to refer to the highlights, such as the head in the title of our text, or the limbs of that couple entwined surrounding the lighted head in the centre.
And it suffices to revisit all the images above from this angle, to persuade ourselves
of that remarkable mystery of William Ropp’s photography: that the pains of incarnation, so poignantly portrayed in this images,
are inversely proportional to the perfection of their embodiment in the image.
Beyst, February 2004
ws4U 18/02/2004 07/12/2006 14.329