We allow ourselves another interruption and resolve to engage with a specific photograph, one that appeals because of its strangeness and its complex portrayal of hybridity. The image is of Grace McDaniels, an American born in 1888 who became known as ‘The Mule-Faced Woman’ due to the terrible facial swellings that affected her nose and lips. Caused by the cancer that would eventually kill her, McDaniels’ facial abnormalities gave her a vaguely equine appearance – hence her moniker – and she began appearing in freak shows, fairs and films up until her death in 1958. Beyond these details, what is it that draws our attention here? What is to be made of the image, and indeed is this what concerns us? How are we to parse its details, its affective components – if we can speak in such terms – or consider how they could serve to engender or provoke further ‘work’, further images? Is it worth relating how the image came to be in our possession, or the specifics of its digital storage? Wouldn’t it be more productive immediately to see it as another iteration of our protagonists’ shape-shifting, or as another excuse to write something like a proposition: the müle-in-a-dress or, depending on assumed gender proclivities, as ‘writing in drag’?
First we address the image as any group might, focusing on details, picking it apart in order to make it speak. What can usefully be said beyond relatable description? We notice the matter-of-fact pose, the gaze into mid-distance, the illusion of a slight protrusion in the abdomen in relation to the upper chest. Then there is the strange sculptural scoop of the summer dress, swooping into a runoff at the top of the hips. Looking at what appear to be the floral patterns, we spend some time trying to anticipate something about the colouring of the cloth, as if somewhere there, in the monochrome mesh, were ingrained the latent but precise coding of its pigmentation. Still we return to that extraordinary mask, the mule muzzle, clipped onto the front of the woman’s face. Other protrusions and swellings no doubt belong to her ‘natural’ features, or indeed the general effects of ageing, yet already it is difficult to tell what belongs to her and what does not – what might be argued as being the contours of a human face in relation to edges or limits whereupon something like a becoming-animal takes place, moving beyond creeping resemblance into something else. Then we observe the tiny wire mechanism of the eyeglasses pinched over the swollen bridge of the nose and wonder about the necessity of making adjustments to the clasps, ordering special items to be manufactured or adjusted. And what else? We also note the particular presence of the woman’s hands hanging down to her sides, apparently containing no tension, no exertion of force that would hold them in a position not determined by gravity. We watch those hands for a moment, stay with them, marking especially the vein that rises up the left wrist, catching a wedge of shadow in its course. Below this, we begin to fixate on what looks like a ring on the middle finger of the left hand. We immediately start thinking of Roland Barthes’ punctum, as if our focus on this piece of jewelry could mirror Barthes’ response to Lewis H. Hine’s photograph of ‘Idiot Children’ from a New Jersey Institution in 1924 (Camera Lucida, p50), where he became enthralled by an oversize finger bandage. Yet at the same moment, the ring on Grace McDaniel’s finger becomes something else for us – on closer inspection, or so it seems, it becomes nothing more than a light blemish, perhaps on the original film or print, or even grafted into its virtual surface by the digitization process. What is this? A tear in paper, an intruder on the scanning glass? It occurs to us that, even better, this uncertain, unidentifiable mark could provide our own puncturing detail – but then, almost instantaneously, it strikes us that this could be something of a false, undecided punctum, and as we can never be sure as to where it ‘belongs’. Is this why it might hold our concern? It adheres neither to the original scene, nor the ‘original’ photographic negative, the paper print, or its fixated digital version visible on screen. Where or what is it exactly – a small catch of light upon the middle finger (luminous as the thumbnail of the right hand!), or a glitch pressed into another form of permanence through its own implausible efforts of resemblance? It seems our problem stems from the fact that the resolution is not generous enough, putting us at a disadvantage. At this distance the grain of the image is liable to fracture. Still, we also recognize that we would not have this any other way – this inexactitude, however it comes to us, provides us with the essential impetus for investment, wiggle room for other terms of visuality, gaps for the possibility of writing… The photograph was immediately scoured for such cracks and imperfections, any surface quality whereupon leverage could be applied, probing for spaces where thought could be released or imposed. It also dawns on us that this tiny point, neither ring nor flaw, is much more our emblem of hybridity than Grace McDaniels’ mule muzzle – this phantom ring marks a point of uncertainty in the image, a valve for its potential dishonesties and written escape routes.
Our attention begins to wander. We start to consider McDaniels as herself a kind of blind spot in the photograph. We try not to see the mule-faced woman, as if seeking information elsewhere, leaning to the side to glimpse behind the central figure. We think of trying to relegate the image’s obvious point of interest, somehow turning it into a crystal that diverted all light away from itself. The figure then starts to slip from the forefront of the image. We look to the rail yard, considering if it were a way station, whether it was captured at a point of arrival or departure. There is a train of wagons that do not appear to be attached to tracks, part of a circus procession. There are numbers. A bonded warehouse too, a few outbuildings and parked cars. Another figure in a white shirt. In the hope of arresting something that appears to be slipping away from us, a hurried digital manipulation is attempted, filtering out the figure of Grace McDaniels from the rail yard. As she is excised, something else starts to occur. The crude violence of the intervention starts to spread the erasure into the background scene, as the warehouse buildings are disrupted by white, unnatural tones that also start to spread chaotically into the shadows underneath the carriages. The operation is stopped. It strikes us as telling – not only demonstrating the extent to which the mule-faced woman is rooted onto that very grass embankment, but the ease with which violence can be applied to sever her from it.