Faces 1976 -1996 (1997)
ACP exhibtion 1997
by Anne Ferran ©
You enter a darkened gallery and you see another face there, much larger than yours looming
like the one in your dreams or in the farthest reaches of your memory. This huge face is
trapped inside a rectangle of light, it is moving. If you come closer CO it your shadow will
appear, swimming across the image surface like the stranded matter that floats inside your
This work, Faces, by Sue and Ben Ford has a history which is important to recall here. It is a
people-history and a film-history. The film has a parent, also called Faces (now Faces I), a
short experimental film which Sue made in 1976. Originally Faces I was screened at the
Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op and later in various places and times nationally and internationally. Coincidentally I first saw it here at the
Australian Centre for Photography at a screening arranged by Denise Robinson during the Iate-l980s. It was shown at Monash University
Gallery as recently as 1995, as part of a survey show of Sue Ford's film and photographic work.
Asked about the making of Faces I, Sue Ford says she was
thinking about a different kind of portrait and what it might be
like. In order p catch all the resonances here you need to think
back to the seventies, when the "photography wars", as Sue
calls them, were being fought, against men armed - so she
says – with rule books on photography ready to wave at her
and others like her. They were the ones who knew what
photography was and what it wasn't. There were a lot of naked
women's bottoms in the bush, in sharp focus and very fine
grain. Sue says she was "anti-technique" but actually the
"wars" were about something bigger - not technique itself but a
technical virtuosity hardened into a rock-like prescriptiveness,
a set of commandments about how and what to see.
The experimental or avant-garde photographers - the opposing forces to which Sue Ford belonged – were more likely to have trained as
painters or filmmakers or not to have trained at all; they were impatient with purely photographic traditions (those bottoms again.) You
could say that they came upon fine art photography by its limpid, self-regarding pool, and by pushing, pulling, dragging .. however they
could, they prised it loose, carried it off and set it down squarely in the world.
A moving portrait then.. by unfreezing the image, allowing it to move and breathe, to spread itself across time, Sue Ford created an
altogether different kind of portrait, even more different than one might have expected. Where the split-second exposure favours the
photographer, her way is more egalitarian. It gives power to the subjects (who in this film then gracefully elect not to use it.) And the
moving portrait doesn't need to penetrate beyond its subject's appearance as the old one was required to do. In its fluctuating moment-to-
moment changes, the mobile surface itself becomes a space of revelation.
If that's one perspective on Faces, there are also other sides to the story. As a maker of low-budget films, Sue's habit was to use
whatever stock came to hand. It didn't matter in 1976 that she was shooting on black and white reversal film, because it was 'just' an
experiment. But then something unexpected happened. Imagine the filmmaker pulling the developed film out of the can, holding it up to
the light, excited by the frame after frame of almost identical images, all those tiny faces revealing themselves. It was at that moment
that the intention to cut and edit this actual footage had to change; instead copies were made and a film for an audience was born.
In this film the cast, all the individuals who appear and reappear, are Sue Ford's friends and colleague. The dense web of relations these
people have with her and with one another · not ties of blood but equally vivid, intense and personal - are invisible in the film but essential
to it. (Maybe I'm romanticising but l can tell that Faces originated in a time when people inhabited each other's lives in a way we don't do
now.) The personal dimension also embraces the involvement of Ben Ford, aged eight in 1976 and who filmed the second part twenty
years later, just as it indirectly includes everything that happened in between. The second film is consciously reflective of the personal
dimension in a way that the first one was not yet able to be. You can see it in Ben Ford's decision to film each person's signature. The
signatures appear, only partly legible, like credits at the end of the film but ciphers of identity would be a better description; in the
installation they hover in their own space adjacent to the main gallery.
In 1976 when each person said yes, they would agree to be filmed and she said, "I am going to film you in close-up, do whatever you
like,” they didn't dance, they didn't run, they simply fronted up to the camera with whatever poise or bravado they could muster. By doing
nothing except face the camera, these people revealed themselves in a way that almost never happens outside the confines of an
institution. I would have expected to find my critical, evaluating faculty hard at work on these near-to-naked faces but nothing of the sort
occurs. I find I am attracted to, fascinated by, all of them. A dark space, an image in a pool of light .. this is one of the most compelling
of retinal effects there can be, regardless of the content. When it is joined to the human face, it sets off old, even ancient, memories,
dreams, wants. Projection screen par excellence, it comes as no surprise when the viewer responds to it strongly, or even that her
responses are at odds with one another.
Time is as important in Faces as any character. In this film time is not an abstract quality, it's more like an animal that runs and
breathes. It takes you for a walk, it drags you along, you go with it, you try but you can't stop it doubling back on itself. We are not
talking here about time in the abstract bur human time, the lived and living time of experience, justly called real lime. When you have
twenty-five seconds until the camera stops rolling, each single second is possessed of an extraordinary vitality. Watching the film you
share a heightened sense of time with the subjects facing the camera, their lives ticking past, second by second. Close your eyes for a
moment and it's the clock face, with the big hand sweeping by, the flux of
Back in 1974, prior to making Faces Sue addressed a similar theme in her Time Series, photographs of the same people taken over a
period of years and shown side-by-side on the wall. But, as she points out, Faces is more true to life because, as a film, it refuses the
side-by-side comparison. In reality time doesn't allow for that kind of treatment (though it could happen by accident in the gallery if the
timing of the twin projections drifts far enough apart).
For a long time, almost all of the intervening years between 1976 and 1996, there was no intention to make a second film. Sue says it
was partly Ben Ford's interest in doing the film that made it possible, along with the quasi-miraculous recovery of the original uncut
footage, thought to have been lost in the 70s, and unearthed in perfect pristine condition in 1995. To my mind the second film looks like it
was invisibly there all along, somehow hidden away inside the first, biding its time and triggered by the completion of the two decades.
You can almost hear the click of the bracelet closing around the wrist.
The film 's second part has been meticulously matched to the first - same people, same duration, same framing and lighting· and yet it it
in a different realm. It is not just that the faces have changed though they certainly have. They are more lined, the features are more
finely drawn, eyes and mouths especially, but it is more complicated than that. For example when the film shifts from real time to lapsed
time, compressing gaps of twenty years into the blink of an eye, the resemblances between younger and older selves become more open
to interpretation. You are nor sure what to make of these likenesses .. some of them could be parents and children. On the other hand,
Sue says that she found while editing Faces that tiny details of gesture and body language had survived the passage of time intact.
Someone whose eyes darted from side to side in 1976 is still doing the same thing twenty years later. B. Still has his "break-out kind of
Time brings changes to people's faces in ways that defy our wishes. (Sometimes I think that this must be what reality is, the residue, the
out of control, what’s left over after we've exerted our will on everything that we can.) More than likely the altered appearances in Faces
will be a powerful attractor for fears and fantasies about aging, but they needn't be. life is being celebrated here, the amazing fact that
these people have all come this far, the mysterious and beautiful way life finds to leave its marks. After all, we all see ourselves
reflected in the faces of our friends. And anyway, how old is old? Old age as a frontier is being pushed steadily back, ask my parents. Is
it seventy? Eighty? One hundred?
To understand the difference between the old film and the new, it helps to tum slightly away from the faces themselves (though it's hard
to do, they are mesmerising.) Faces 1 and 2 are both experimental films but I doubt that they mean the same thing by "experimental".
Faces 1 experimented with the structure of film and the formal possibilities of photographic portraiture. As a film it had a strongly human
face, because all Sue Ford's work has that, but it still sat easily with other experimental investigations of the lime. Twenty years on the
film 's one·time innovations have become conventions; it no longer makes sense to look for the experimental there. In Faces 2 1 think it
has moved across to where the people are, beyond the camera, performing this compelling real-life, ground-breaking experiment, of
meeting life head-on.
Faces 1976 -1996 (2003)
Remembrance + the Moving Image
by Ross Gibson
© Australian Centre for the Moving Image 2003
Sue Ford’s Faces 1976–1996 began in 1976 as an investigation into the
use of 16mm movie film. Ford wanted to introduce time – in the scale of a
few breaths and blinks – into the genre of the photographic portrait. She
wondered what might show through in a face when composure has time to
slip during a portrayal lasting longer than the customary shutter-flick that
most subjects have learned to bluff. Might the time element give some
extra insight into people and about systems of representation?
Silent, without an explicit message and ostensibly naive, the film seemed
to be just a line-up of Ford’s friends – 19 of them – one after the other,
presenting themselves for half a minute each. But it was profound. Devoid
of stylistic flourish, it eased the viewer into a stark confrontation with
time. Its soundless austerity intensified the duration that the subjects
were experiencing while they were offering themselves to the camera; and
the pathos of the flickering glances and facial twitches intensified the time
viewers felt passing through them as each new subject presented their
point-blank idiosyncrasies, intricacies and vulnerabilities.
Watching the original ten-minute version of Faces, the viewer experiences fascination, impatience, boredom and, finally, revelation. At
some stage during the first encounter with Faces, almost everyone hears an internal voice saying: ‘Why are you so agitated? Stop and
consider how time is passing...compared to the complexities in all the faces here, what is ten minutes of your life?’ For most viewers
there is a chastening and thrilling moment when, with a little existential frisson, they feel everyone in the film looking back at them. From
that moment on, viewers can usually look at themselves in ways they had never previously considered. The 1976 version of Faces has
become a classic. Many thousands who have seen it have been deeply affected by the film’s ‘exposure’, by its quest not to pose but to
show, to expose vulnerability, trust, fallibility, uncertainty, acceptance.
Twenty years later and born out of Fordís ongoing exploration of themes surrounding time and impermanence, she reignited the project.
Assisted by her son Ben, who was just eight years old at the time of the first shoot, Ford contacted all the original subjects and repeated
the process. Not unlike the 1976 experience, everything began to fall into place: in addition to almost all of the subjects agreeing to be re-
filmed, the original negative of the 1976 film – presumed lost – was discovered in pristine condition. As the photographer Anne Ferran
observes, ‘The second film looks like it was invisibly there all along, somehow hidden away inside the first, biding its time and triggered
by the completion of the two decades’. It is as if the first film could see the second one coming, and as if the second film can remember
the first one happening.
Over the years since 1976, Faces has involved all kinds of generations. It spans the three decades of lived time that usually define a
generation. Two generations of the Ford family have taken up the camera and become intimately embroiled in the work’s regeneration
into a new film, Faces 1976–1996. And now the work has been regenerated anew again, this time as an endless, four-screen installation.
In this latest version viewers are surrounded by time, by everything that has passed from the younger to the older version of each face
that gathers around. Crucially though, the arrangement of the screens is such that viewers are never twisting, turning and gawking. The
installation is no curiosity piece; instead, it is set up like a meditation space. As Ford has rightly observed, the piece is now concerned
with impermanence rather than with time passing. This distinction is subtle but absolutely crucial. If the 1976 faces were in front of the
viewer and the 1996 ones behind, such an arrangement would discomfit them to the point of twisting actively back and forth to compare
the ‘before and after’ aspects of each portrait. In such a version, the drama would be about the shock of change and ageing. The effect
would be almost ‘gossipy’ somehow. In Ford’s preferred version, by contrast, the two portraits of the same face are joined at a corner, in
front of the viewer so that they can see the full 20 years of alteration in the one person within a single, undistracted scope of vision.
In Ford’s specified version, there is not ‘drama’ so much as ‘dharma’ – the Buddhist knowledge of the enduring truths that imbue the
cosmos. The Faces installation is set up in a way that gives the viewer a chance to comprehend the impermanence of worldly existence.
There it is, on full display in a single field of vision, on the face of each portrait and in the consciousness of the viewer: the past, the
recent past, and the present all comprehended together. Meanwhile, patiently behind them another portrait is being similarly attentive,
making no demands, causing no agitation or distraction. Rather than passing by restlessly as they did in the 1976 version, the subjects
of Faces now gather and wait with the viewer, graciously embodying time rather than impatiently observing its passing.
1 Ferran, A, 1997, ‘Faces 1976–96’, catalogue essay for an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, May 1997.
PARTICIPANTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Ken jai Baba
Sue Ford & Ben Ford