We contain multitudes

When I rent studio space for clients I sometimes plan a little extra time to do my own thing in the studio. I have lots of ideas, many fleeting, for things I’d like to make time to work on in the studio. These ideas are different from one another in origin and meaning, but my interest in finding subtlety means that if I followed through with all of them I would have a huge collection of photos that are essentially a face against a plain background.

For example, I recently became obsessed with my microbiome. A few months ago I read The Mind Gut Connection by Dr. Emeran Mayer which was life changing in terms of health, but it led me to read I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, which was life changing in terms of how I see myself and others in relation to the the world. On page 10 Young snagged me with this: The latest estimates suggest that we have around 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion microbial ones — a roughly even split. Even these numbers are inexact, but that does not really matter; by any reckoning we contain multitudes. 

I got stuck on the thought that I am as much or even more not-me than I am me. Same for you.

I spend a lot of time trying to capture the essence of a person. When you look at a portrait of yourself, you should see YOU, not just your face and your hair and your body, but something deeper, your mood, your personality, a story or a thought or a memory.

My obsession with my microbes raised the question of photographing a person without capturing THEM. On one hand, capturing a person’s true essence is a challenge. We often want to show people something or present ourselves as we believe we are or as we would like to seem to others. But the goal is to see them and photograph something true and unique about them.

On the other hand, taking a picture of not-you, a picture containing all the same visible characteristics — your face, your hair, your body — but that doesn’t capture your essence at all, is another type of challenge altogether. Even in seeming, we show something about ourselves.  What we attempt to show people says something about what is important to us, what we are thinking about at that time, what our insecurities are… these things are as truly you, and as truly me, as the elusive and unique essence I look for in portrait photography.

Photographing not-you has seemed like an impossible task. I’ve been considering how to manage it for months. I thought a little about the portraits of medieval times. Before the humanism of the Renaissance, a picture of a woman was a picture of any woman, not a specific one. It was a role that was captured in a painting — mother, child, leader, caretaker, savior, etc — rather than any unique essence of an individual.

I’ve wanted to do a whole series of un-portraits, or portraits of multitudes. It will basically look like faces, like I said earlier, against a plain background… expressionless, but not eerily so. Faces that just are. 

All of this leads up to my most recent creative time in the studio. My dance student and friend, and multi-talented artist, Isabella Dobbs was kind enough to spend an hour doing ridiculous things. Always choose an artist as a subject when you want to do ridiculous things!


We talked about removing the individual by focusing on “face and hands.” We tried to capture these as subjects in themselves, without any “essence of Isabella.”


Isabella is lovely, smart and creative, but I hope you can’t tell any of these things from looking at these pictures! Neil deGrasse Tyson says “We are, each of us, a little universe.” These pictures are meant to present a universe of microbial life.

Here are a few shots from the same session not associated directly with the microbial un-portraits, but with that same spirit of anonymity (not exactly anonymity, but anyone-ness) in mind.


Have you read either of these books? Have any thoughts to share on the idea of individuality in portraiture? Do you find those microbes as exciting as I do?