RATIO by Dominique Somers
But perhaps […] they will turn their backs on the paper, […], leaning on each other in their delicate thinness, alone with each other, on the other side of the world, having come here like a chance detail, leaving again, unnoticed, for other barren plains.
— Henri Michaux, in: The Night Moves
A glance and a silent body, trapped in a common, but non-reciprocal situation.
– Michel Foucault, in: The Birth of the Clinic
The work Ratio consists of 117 images featuring the same number of naked men and women photographed from behind. Bram Van Stappen made the series as part of the exhibition Back, organised in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2021. Over a period of six weeks, the photographer set up a field studio and invited visitors to undress and take place in front of the camera, yet face the opposite direction. Set in a generic surrounding and central composition, evenly lit and tightly cropped, the resultant black-and-white images display a form of (anti)portraiture that seems above all to be a study in paradox. For how do we read this collection of head- and legless torsos that do not even face us? How can bodies this naked and exposed appear so walled off and private? So unique and at the same time universal?
Informed by important motives in art history such as the Rückenfigur and the artistic nude, photographic practices of body classification developed in the nineteenth century, as well as today’s selfie- and privacy-obsessed culture, Van Stappen’s project raises questions about the identity and knowability of both the Other and one’s own (perception of) corporeality.
Leafing through the book, we are confronted with an accumulation of nude backs in different shapes and sizes: male and female, young and old, inked and blank, slender and plump, (a)symmetric, straight, or with hunched shoulders. The head, neck, pelvis, and lower extremities are cut from the image with surgical precision, leaving only the back of the torso, arms and sometimes part of the hands in view. What remains are pieces of an unidentified body frame, covered by a layer of skin. We perceive them as flat, quasi-abstract forms at an undetermined distance from us. For in the void of sterile space and light, blind facades of anatomical details and stretched epidermis block our gaze at the surface of the image. By deleting the most recognizable physical features of his models, Van Stappen anonymises them into graphic fields one tends to scrutinise as if looking at the enlarged negative of a starry sky or a speckled canvas. The lack of a gesture, a facial expression, any form of reciprocity, frustrate the viewer’s attempts to pick up on signs of a personal body language, to engage with the photograph as with a living body part. Furthermore, three-dimensional reliefs and volumes only come to light by the shadows that they themselves create. In Ratio, the nondescript lighting creates figures without those signs of corporeality. Isolated and shadowless, they step away from a physical volume toward mute compression.
This disembodying effect is further heightened by Van Stappen’s use of the camera as a remorseless slicing machine that severs, decapitates and dismembers with no regard for corporeal logic or continuity. The surgical amputation and the photographic cut coincide here in a symbolic manner. The camera’s incision exposes the body’s ‘presence’ in terms of a photographic reality, a mirror image that outlines physicality as it is not: a flat surface that returns our body as representation.
This given also holds true for another reason, which sparked Van Stappen’s interest to undertake the Ratio project in the first place. For it is physically impossible to look at one’s own back from a frontal perspective without the help of another person or a visual aid (a double mirror, a camera). A head-on view of the rear side of our body is not directly accessible to us. It belongs to a vision that escapes our control. Acquiring such an image always involves a form of projection and mediation. We are confronted here with a blind spot in our perception and that of our own corporeality, hence also with the limitations of our self-representation. Frontal images of one’s own back are therefore often perceived as foreign. They oblige us to observe ourselves from an out-of-body perspective, introducing feelings of detachment and alienation, which, in turn, are semantically transferred onto the dorsal views in the Ratio series. The experience of dissociation certainly contributes to the mysterious appeal of Van Stappen’s project, since the photographed backs feel eerily strange and familiar at the same time. Model and (by proxy) photographer and spectator are confronted with the enigma of their own body and with our dual position towards the seemingly autonomous image of that body.
This photographic dispositif already posits the unclothed backs as objects of a speculative and public gaze of inquiry, authorized by someone outside the scope of the model’s field of vision. The social dimensions of the (nude) body and the photographic gaze as a potential tool of power come into focus here. In Ratio, Van Stappen reverses the traditional logic of the photographic portrait, introducing a specific form of voyeurism. As the gaze is not reciprocated, both photographer and spectator peer at an unguarded other, naked and unable to see the onlooker. We observe them as if in pursuit, a dynamic that reinforces a sense of dominance and judgement toward the stalked other. Furthermore, posing naked already implies a form of exposure (deprived of protective clothing), associated with fragility and insecurity.
That said, however, photographing part of a turned body simultaneously produces an expression of concealment. Physical features that are strongly connected to one’s (sexual) identity, emotional life, and social interaction remain hidden from the spectator’s gaze. This puts the exposed figure in a dual position of control and vulnerability. The Ratio series very much proves that paradox. Turned into the main pictorial motif, the back transforms here into a sign of ambiguity that reinforces both the image and the lure of the ungraspable.
In so doing, Van Stappen directly links his project to the aesthetic concept of the Rückenfigur or ‘figure seen from behind’. A compositional device in painting, graphic art, photography and film, the Rückenfigur motif dates to antiquity but gained popularity in the nineteenth century when it became a recurrent theme in German Romantic painting, especially in the works of Caspar David Friedrich. A solitary person portrayed with their back to the viewer and centrally positioned in the foreground of the composition, the Rückenfigur contemplates the open view in front of him/her, thus establishing an imaginary fourth wall in the picture’s simulation of space. The anonymous figure is often placed inside the image as a metaphorical surrogate for the viewer, who experiences the observed scene from the same perspective. Through the Rückenfigur’s guidance, the spectator is invited into the image to feel physically and emotionally closer to what is depicted. The enigmatic leitmotif often creates a sense of tension or drama in the representation and in the act of looking. While the figure’s turned pose is meant to draw in the viewer, it simultaneously excludes them from the scene. Leaving the spectator mystified about its identity and state of mind, the solitary presence of the Rückenfigur then communicates a mood of isolation, secrecy, or melancholy. In any case, strong mental images and affects are projected: the figure seen from behind can evoke feelings of strength, solidarity, and emotional belonging on the one hand, and sentiments of vulnerability, solitude, and unfulfilled desire on the other.
In Ratio, Van Stappen reimagines the Rückenfigur motif from a contemporary perspective. Here, the exposed backs do not represent the fourth wall in the represented space but the only wall. The opportunity to encounter the outer world through the surrogates’ eyes is never an option, since they only face the physical limits of their constructed indoor surroundings and, on top of that, from a vantage point outside of our line of sight. Van Stappen seems to tap into the reversed figure’s symbolism to address larger concerns about interpersonal connectivity in today’s technoculture. In this era of machine vision, lockdowns, and virtual meetings, face-to-face encounters are increasingly rare. Gazing has turned into a unilateral, on-screen activity. Visual surveillance practices invade our physical space and privacy on a daily basis. In that sense, the reversed torsos in Ratio can also be explained as a shared refusal to conform to the expectations of our voyeuristic society and to the hypervisibility of the narcissistic selfie.
Grouping 117 images of the same motif by means of a repeated grammar, Ratio presents a visual typology in which every image is valorised by analogy. It is clear that Van Stappen had the composite effect of the entire series in mind from the very start. And initially, we do indeed codify the reversed torsos in terms of their equivalence. The absence of explicit personal features and the anonymity of nakedness emphasise their universal character. Body-related similarities such as race, age, and gender are outlined in a generic, non-sexualised way. Masking the erogenous zones most associated with the artistic nude, every individual back simply becomes part of a larger, collective ‘body’. The formal qualities of each posture and skin take on meaning through the sequential logic of the cumulative work. This idea of an overarching unity is further strengthened by the organising principles of the photobook, which allows for a fixed image sequence and viewing order.
Van Stappen regularly turns to this archival mode of photography as part of his artistic strategy. Harking back to nineteenth-century classification schemes featuring the human body as a diagnostic tool, he employs methods of observational triage similar to the ones used in scientific processes of identification. Yet by adopting the formats of a comparative, taxonomic study, Van Stappen not only sets out to collect and to classify his subjects. He also aspires to find the singular in the whole.
Looking more attentively at the exposed backs in Ratio, we do start to notice differences within the similar. Small signs such as stance, skin markings, a strand of hair, a piece of jewellery or faint imprints of underwear upon the skin—all disclose minuscule elements of personality in each image. The series also portrays nudity in an individual and unidealised way, without embellishment and marked by life. Commercial representations of the flawless body are not the point of interest here. Differences in condition, shape and proportion, for example, make every model’s physique particular. To underline that uniqueness, Van Stappen has cut every single image to fit the specific ratio of the depicted back in question. Neither the proportions set forth by the Golden Ratio nor the rationale of the archive dictate the crop, rather relative height and width of each respective torso do. By honouring and repressing the individual at the same time, the series constantly alternates between generalised and detailed looking. Sometimes our eyes are drawn to the overall typology, sometimes we zero in on the particularities of a skin’s surface. Which way the gaze leads us cannot be explained by reason alone. There is also an intuitive aspect to it. In presenting many of the same, our curiosity is triggered to explore the unfamiliar familiar via a sensory experience.
What Ratio offers is an ambiguous method to delineate the already slippery relationship between self-determination and controlled observation that is so characteristic of interacting with the (naked) other. Exposing the unequivocal distinction between body and image, the series also tells us something about how we experience physicality in contemporary life. A new connection between model and representation has taken shape, one that no longer needs the human eye. We might even state that the evolution of the body as a concept parallels the evolution of technology because the physical is increasingly displaced by new practices of visualisation. The isolated, barren backs in Ratio both deny and affirm such issues that deal with the body in terms of a social subject. It is Van Stappen’s way to address current struggles with the role of corporeality in the act of perception and with the (in)ability to communicate face-to-face. Just the same, Ratio can be interpreted as a form of freedom that radically refuses to comply with the voyeuristic tendencies of the public gaze. Turning away from the camera involves a retreat into a safe and private space to deflect identification and judgement by others. The reversal enables us to look at the exposed backs as though we perceive ourselves in the mirror, with humble expectations. We are, after all, like any other, perfectly imperfect. Or in Nietzsche’s words: we are human, all too human.