Portraits: Friends and Strangers
FOREWORD to Michael Mather's Portraits
by Thomas Farber
"I was one of the curious," Michael Mathers writes, explaining how he came to be in the home of an elderly woman who was reading auras. "Curious," however, just doesn't do him justice, this self-described "visual dog in heat" whose hunger impels him into a Skid Row hotel, has him stepping over a pile of eight-inch rubber penises, draws him to a slaughterhouse, a funeral home, a drag queen ball. Takes him to Fossil, Oregon. And leads him over and again to the homes of his friends. "As is my nature," he writes, "I brought my camera."
Powerful individually, as a collection these portraits overwhelm. If at first we are sure which people are "straight," which not, soon we are lost. Who, really, are the gargoyles here? About to look out through the window at the "stupid bastards" who pay to stare at her, the carnival's Fat Lady is sure she knows who the real freaks are.
Were these portraits only a record of the grotesque, they would arrest attention, but they compel a far more subtle view. Mathers catches the strangeness of us all, yet seldom passes judgment. These are our lives, he seems to be saying; we all have to learn to live with ourselves, whatever others take us to be. See us as. With an eye for the rich and strange in even the familiar, Mathers gives us a Chaucerian world. No blemishes removed; nothing expurgated; nothing denied. One wonders how they-we-took such forms. See the child in his father's arms. No one immune. Yet in this collection there is little despair; like it or not, this is God's plenty. Faced with such accumulation, what can one do but nod in recognition?
The elderly woman who was reading auras told Mathers that she saw a black spot over his heart. "That got to me," he writes. "I knew what she was talking about. I'd come there because. . . it sounded a bit bizarre and I had hoped to get it on film." It's true, it's true, this photographer intrudes, he's a driven man, but how he pays his dues! There are no candids in this collection: over and again Mathers had to ask if he could make a picture. Not take it. What he takes are chances, exposing not merely film but himself to such strange flowerings.
He returns to the aura reader, he writes, "just to talk." Well, not really. On his final visit she poses for a portrait. She made the right choice.
The last photograph in this collection is, of course, of the artist. Who is this naked but masked man? I think we look for him best in the extraordin-ary pages that go before, a cumulative self-portrait of a man who, unblinking, has embraced life on its own terms.
©Thomas Farber, 1979