In the eye of; the beholder

What do our eyes and hands say about us? The French photographer Francis Giacobetti has made a lifelong quest out of anatomising, in brilliant detail, famous figures and their bodily parts - among them Stephen Hawking, Francis Bacon and Sylvie Guillem.Report by Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
Friday 31 May 1996 23:02

Eyes, we say, are windows of the soul. In the relief maps embedded in the palms of hands we predict future lives. Faces tell the tale of our personal odysseys through good times and bad times, laughter and tragedy. By 50, so people say, we have the face we deserve, unless, like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, we possess a macabre portrait hidden in the attic that wears the liver spots and wrinkles denied by the face we show to the world downstairs.

These three together - face, eyes and hands - reveal what Francis Giacobetti (born in 1939), the brilliant French photographer whose extraordinary triptych portraits you see here, believes to be the anatomy of the personal and beautiful universe that makes each human being special.

Giacobetti has been making these triptychs for the past 12 years. To date, he has photographed 150 famous people from around the world. His subjects, who include musicians and painters, mountaineers and deep sea explorers, have one thing in common: each looks deeply into his or her subject matter with formidable intelligence and great passion. None could ever be accused of superficiality. And, in Giacobetti's eyes, we see this through the lie of his sitters' hands, the wear and tear in their faces and, most dramatically, in the startling constellations and unearthly landscapes of their eyes.

While Giacobetti's faces and hands, photographed in black and white, are never less than exquisite and revelatory, it is the eyes, staring so uncompromisingly from the centre of his triptychs, that capture ours.

What extraordinary eyes they prove to be. The eyes of Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist, resemble a supernova or some new constellation in the infinite reaches of the universe whose workings he has tried to explain to a mass audience.

Giacobetti calls Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, "A Michelangelo of the 20th century", an artist who paints contemporary versions of Heaven, Hell and the Last Judgement, not on the roofs of Roman chapels but on reels of celluloid. Looking into Coppola's apocalyptic eyes, Giacobetti- style, is like looking into the heart of darkness. Coppola's is a vision, as his films have proven time and again, with a sure and disturbing take on the demons that struggle for our souls.

In contrast, those of Francis Bacon are a beautiful, electric blue; painterly for sure, yet shot through with fiery coronas. And, then, there are those of Yehudi Menuhin, the virtuoso: peaceful, deep and dreamy.

So perfectly, in fact, do the lives and characters of Giacobetti's sitters dovetail with the images he presents us of the irises of their eyes, that it is difficult not to feel that the photographer is playing some sort of elaborate aesthetic trick on us. Perhaps he photographed the eyes of Hawking and Coppola and then coloured them to match our expectations of their character? It is a tempting thought, but quite untrue.

So how does he do it? "I invented my own device for taking photographs of the eyes," says Giacobetti, on the telephone from his studio in Paris. "It is a little secret, but what it does, more or less, is to shine light across the side of the eyes rather than directly into them. In this way, we can see the pattern of eyes in relief, which is not possible if you shine light directly into them. Of course, this is not some sort of optician's device. My pictures have nothing to do with science, medicine or anatomy; my interest is only in their beauty." Anything else we read into these eyes is, it seems, coincidence.

Why the triptych form? "Because," says the photographer, "I wanted my record of special people, deeply intelligent people, to be more than just a sequence of conventional pictures - a single image, snap! - no, I wanted them to be... a meditation.

"Just now I am preparing an exhibition in Paris of the portraits I have made to date. This will be at the new national library. The show is being designed by Dominique Perrault, the library's architect. Each portrait will be two metres high; the total effect will be meditative, yes, almost hypnotic."

The Paris exhibition will mark a halfway stage in Giacobetti's pursuit of the hands, eyes and faces of the world's great originals. "I plan to make a total of 300 portraits," he says, "and I hope the project will be completed for the turn of the century. It has ended up as a kind of millennium project, although that was not the original intention."

As yet, Giacobetti has produced very few photographs of British talent. "Perhaps," he says with what must be laughter in his own blue eyes, "this is because I am Corsican, home of your big enemy [by which, of course, he means Napoleon Bonaparte]. But no, this is not true. I will make a plan soon to visit England. There are many people there I hope to photograph." Any favourites? "Oh yes. I want to see Isaiah Berlin, Stanley Kubrick [American, living in England], Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie, Norman Foster and Lucien Freud; but, of course, there are others, too."

To date, Giacobetti has portrayed just six sets of British hands, eyes and faces; these are Francis Bacon ("with the water-blue eyes of a rosbif, like my own"), Yehudi Menuhin, Jack Preger, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Hawking, and Sir John Vane, a biochemist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1982.

His favourite Brit to date is undoubtedly Francis Bacon; he has been working on a book and a film of Bacon's life and work for some years. "I made a three-hour interview on film with Bacon," says Giacobetti, "and this will eventually become part of a bigger project." For now, we will have to make do with Giacobetti's triptych of the maverick painter.

One of the conditions imposed on magazines publishing Giacobetti's great work - known collectively as Hymn - is a demand "to respect the spirit of the project, that which intends to be a homage to the intelligence of the 20th century" and to accept that "the role of the images of the irises, as well as that of the hands, is purely aesthetic. In order that the privacy of the personalities participating in the project will be respected, The Independent, under no circumstances, will associate the publication of the subject to diagnostic methods based on the examination of the irises as well as palm reading of the hands."

No, Monsieur Giacobetti, we do indeed see the meditative beauty of Hymn, and we faithfully promise not to ask Mystic Meg or any other astrologer or soothsayer to tell us anything more about the life and times of Francis Bacon or Philippe Starck. Your eyes, your lens and your magic light tell us more than we could ever have known before

Francis Bacon Born Dublin, 1909. 'I don't understand why we were so close. I love women - they are the most intelligent animal on the planet - and he loved men. As a painter, his lucidity is very rare.' These images were captured in London a few months before Bacon died in Madrid, 1992

Federico Fellini

Born Rimini, 1920, died 1993. Film director (La Dolce Vita, 1959, 81/2, 1962). 'Fellini is for me one of the greatest poets in the world. Like Picasso. Same thing. I think this is a good portrait of him. I saw him as a child, at 74: his eyes are those of a child'

Sylvie Guillem

Born 1965. Dancer. 'This book is all about people who make a little step for humanity. When you see Guillem dancing, she stays a moment in the air; she doesn't fall down immediately. I am not satisfied with this portrait. She is very nervous - lovely muscles and bones'

Philippe Starck

Born 1949. Designer of interiors, furniture, lemon squeezers. 'He is very funny, very talented. He asked, "What do I have to do?" I said, "Nothing". "I am ugly as a crow," he said. "In this position I am at my best." The eyes are very strange - black spots everywhere, very dramatic'

Francoise Sagan

Born 1935. Novelist and playwright. 'I like this woman very much. I have known her a long, long time. I tried to do something to show that she is not happy all the time. I think this picture is very 'Bonjour Tristesse'. She is sometimes up, sometimes very down, like all writers'

Stephen Hawking

Born Oxford, 1942. Astrophysicist. His were the eyes that most impressed the photographer: 'They seem almost superhuman, showing a gigantic intelligence trapped in an immobile body.' Hawking occupies the chair once held by Newton at Cambridge University

Yehudi Menuhin

Born 1916. Violinist. 'I know him well. He is a humanist, and a great human being. We were in the Maison de la Radio, three years ago. He was listening to music. I like this picture very much, with the big vein on his face, like a tube: it's as if the music is coming through that vein'

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