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Book Review: Unspeaking Likeness

Book Review Unspeaking Likeness By Arne Svenson Reviewed by George Slade Many related impressions and perhaps a few tangential thoughts arise as I regard this strange and remarkable book.
I’m aware of the scale of the book. Its dimensions could easily form the width and breadth of a box capable of containing a human head.

Unspeaking LikenessBy Arne Svenson
Twin Palms Publishers, 2016.
Unspeaking Likeness
Reviewed by George Slade

Unspeaking Likeness
Photographs by Arne Svenson
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2016. 112 pp., 49 duotone illustrations, 11x14".

Many related impressions and perhaps a few tangential thoughts arise as I regard this strange and remarkable book.

I’m aware of the scale of the book. Its dimensions could easily form the width and breadth of a box capable of containing a human head. I can hold the book in front of myself and convincingly replace my head with one of the reconstructed heads in Svenson’s photographs. Thinking of heads in boxes reminds me of what happened to Tracy, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in the 1995 film Seven, and of Mills, her husband, played by Brad Pitt, who discovers the box and its contents.

I know of, and was somewhat underwhelmed by, Arne Svenson’s earlier book projects (and, more expansively, portfolios, though I will overlook those at the moment) including: Sock Monkeys (200 out of 1,863), which struck me when it came out in 2002 as really silly but now seems like a precursor to the new work’s investigations of emotional expression and personality made manifest in handmade forms; Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots, 2007, also silly, but once again eerie and foreshadowing in its anthropomorphic envisioning of human qualities in non-human forms; Chewed, 2011, in which canine/feline violence enacted upon mass-produced objects is both silly, because it’s happened to toys, and on second glance ghastly, because these grossly disfigured creatures belonged to someone who loved them; and The Neighbors, 2015, which spotlights the mysteries of human behavior, seen in fragments and at a distance, in a sensationalist mode echoing Merry Alpern’s 1995 Dirty Windows among various examinations of voyeurism through the decades. These antecedents now seem quite portentous. Unspeaking Likeness confirms the turn Svenson took in The Neighbors from the overtly silly to the implicitly serious and highlights a through-line of socio-cultural anthropology in Svenson’s photographs.

Unspeaking LikenessBy Arne SvensonTwin Palms Publishers, 2016.

I sense the tragic futility of these heads, and am haunted by what both Svenson and essayist William T. Vollmann (in this instance perhaps the most aptly chosen essayist for a photobook in many a year) identify as the plaintive, questioning voices of these fictional crania. Utilizing little more than skeletal and circumstantial evidence, forensic scientists build these objects to identify anonymous remains. Such portrayals have similar goals, resolving cases, but differ from faces reproduced on milk cartons, wanted posters, and police sketches of suspects. The latter portraits, accurate to varying degrees, have objective correlatives, people who may remain “unfound” or “on the loose” despite having been witnessed earlier. But the likenesses depicted in Svenson’s photographs start, and often end, in the speculative unknown; an oddly gratifying appendix notes that the individuals whose deaths generated the evidence frequently remain “Unidentified,” though there are some examples of successful identifications made.

Unspeaking LikenessBy Arne SvensonTwin Palms Publishers, 2016.

Unspeaking Likeness’s mute subject yearns after voice-over narratives from the dead, suggested in film by William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and Saoirse Ronan’s Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. Those who made and utilized these heads could only dream of voices issuing from their John and Jane Does, an utterance, however ghoulish, to add something concrete to their sculptural conjectures. But who speaks for the “Unidentified”? Who knows or hears their voices?

I’m reminded, furthermore, of Gorky Park, a film in which forensic heads help identify decayed remains of three bodies found in the eponymous park. And when interests antithetical to those of the investigators intervene, the reconstructions are destroyed, an unusually disturbing bit of violence when you realize that these individuals are being murdered for the second time. (A bit of forensic/filmic trivia here. Professor Andreev, the technician played by Ian McDiarmid who builds the three heads is modeled after Mikhail Gerasimov, the Soviet scientist who developed what’s known as forensic sculpture.)

Unspeaking LikenessBy Arne SvensonTwin Palms Publishers, 2016.

Nancy Burson, a photographic artist and personality theorist whose image-making/-manipulating/-projecting skills have been both recognized in art contexts and utilized in police investigations, drifts across my now very crowded figurative light table as I consider how Svenson’s heads shift persona and chronology while they also disarticulate personality.

Now, wipe that table clear. What, specifically, has Svenson himself, Svenson the visual artist, brought to this enterprise that makes it so moving and successful, aside from the determined search he undertook to locate and gain access to these evidentiary objects?

Unspeaking LikenessBy Arne SvensonTwin Palms Publishers, 2016.

It’s fairly simple, a bit of photographic syntax apparent on the surface of every photograph in the book. Instead of establishing a flat, depersonalizing picture plane, Svenson employs his camera’s swings and tilts to bring some optical personality to images that could have been very cold and technical records, entirely lacking empathy for these abandoned lives. The selective, fluid focus brings life to the subjects, implying movement, a refusal or incapacity of the sitter to remain still.

And above all these are restless images. They implore us to answer questions that may haunt your daylight imaginings and disrupt your ability to gain critical distance. As they did mine.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at

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