“Look straight into your eyes,” he said to me as I sat looking at myself. My hair was flopped over to one side, there were four ghosts of pimples on my face, and I was surprisingly pale. Juan Luis Garcia was the person directing me, asking me questions as I stared at myself: I was participating in his FACE VALUE project.
I was well aware of what it would entail: looking at myself as someone documented me looking at myself. It is an exercise of self-examination and performance: what do you see when you look into your own eyes? Is that what everyone else sees or does something get lost in translation? Who knows. Regardless, Juan Luis is attempting to answer that through this project.
I arrived at his Angeleno Heights space, which is tucked away behind one of the many Victorian houses in the small sub-neighborhood. Juan Luis greeted me at the gate, he a bespectacled bearded guy simply dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans, and understated but dramatic necklace. We spoke about his project and he shared pieces of his past work, specifically his fantastic Cuban focused body Cuba y Cubans.
As we spoke at his dining room table, he explained what was going to go on: I’d be sitting in his studio within his apartment and would have to face myself for some photos. He mentioned that he only had 150-ish persons so far and that I may be the 159th person participating in the series. He said that the people he’s already photographed ranged from other locals, persons in Phoenix, and lots from a brief whirlwind tour of New York City, when he setup shop in a hotel room for a few days, turning around face after face after face. He’s gotten a few celebrities involved by way of a connection or word of mouth, which is how Russell Simmons, Gene Simmons, and Shepard Fairey have participated in the project.
We walk into his studio which is almost entirely filled with the mirror portrait setup he invented. This setup consists of a backdrop, a stool, a Canon 5D, and lights (two big lights and one tiny slave light). “All of this compresses into three big bags,” he notes as he points to everything. He goes on to explain that he walked three avenues with these giant, heavy bags while working on the project in New York. “What a huge mistake!” he said with a laugh.
This setup is all Juan Luis’ has now. “I sold all my photography equipment: I had a bunch of things I wasn’t using and I sold it all and only kept my 5D, to get this setup specifically,” he says. In lieu of multiple cameras, he now has one and the help of some heavy duty lights. He was previously using Ikea lights but they didn’t seem to work. “That’s why I sold all my gear.”
The camera specifically is fixed to a mirror and serves as a façade. As you look at the camera, it simply looks like a mirror. “Originally I built a box with the mirror on one side and the camera on the inside but it wasn’t working,” he explains, tracing the current setup with a finger. “I figured why not build a frame? I bought a 12″ x 12″ picture frame and cut a hole in the back, which you can see from the back. The mirror is activated by whatever side has the most light. And, since the mirror is covered, the light reflects from the front.”
That is the magic of his mirror portrait setup: a two way mirror that seamlessly conceals the camera. The illusion is perfect and completely invented by Juan Luis. He noted how the execution of the frame is not perfect; however, it works. Like his father, he says, he’s good at doing things by hand by himself even if it isn’t necessarily the best construction. It functions well for him and that is all that matters.
As we get ready to begin the session, I ask him about a color card sitting on the stool. The bright colors pop off of the black stool like little Chiclets. “The color card isn’t as essential if I were shooting on film. But, I love shooting people’s photos when they’re like this,” he explains, moving the color card just under his eyes. “It brings out certain people’s eye colors. I have everyone do it and everyone loves it. I end up sending it to everyone as a tribute.”
I sit down at the stool and Juan Luis asks if he can record the session with a tape recorder. I consent and we begin, him rolling into a series of questions. They range from “What do you think your favorite facial feature is?” to “If a feature of your body had to be the cover of your book, would your face be the cover?” The questions help to heighten and inspire the subject’s awareness of him or herself and pokes holes in your assumed sense of self.
I sat there fully expecting to know what I thought of myself but found a few habits and self-presentation techniques to reveal themselves in our session. Primarily, I caught that I was obsessed with fussing around with my hair. At first it was completely unconscious but I caught myself and called out what I was doing mid-question. Similarly, my big nose–the former focal point of self-inflicted ugliness–lost the title of Feature I Am Most Self-Conscious Of, losing to my teeth, these tiny buttercream arrowheads that are not white, not straight, and not attractive (to me). They are my new most hated feature. Facing myself, I also remembered that I have a secret tattoo inside of my mouth that says “SCIENCE.” How does one forget that? Leave ignoring your body to remember a detail like that.
After twenty, thirty minutes, the session was done and Juan Luis showed me all the photos from the series. Looking at them, there were no big revelations save for how pale I was, which Juan Luis noted was the lighting and that it very easily is pulled back from. As I scrolled through the photos, I was much more interested in the photos that I looked gross or was making a silly face in because that’s how I see myself and how I hope other people see me: as a goof. Juan Luis mentioned that some people were shocked by how they look, the photos revealing even more about them. For me? They were more of the same.
As we went through the session, Juan Luis explained how he’s hoping to present them. “They’ll be flipped so that we see you as you see yourself. For the show I was thinking of displaying them as frame, frame, frame, mirror, frame, frame, frame, mirror, etc. So, as viewers look through them, they will see you and realize that they are seeing your reflection in the photo, how each person sees themselves. You are seeing them as they see themselves.”
I picked up my things as his next session was arriving, which was large tattooed man Tim Dax. The three of us shared a moment and I remembered how excited Juan Luis was that he was able to get Dax, a man who has some remarkable face tattoos. Dax in addition to several others fill unique facial types that he’s hoping to feature in the project: he’s hoping to get some twins, burn victims, persons with disabilities, religious figures, beauty pageant contestants, political figures like Antonio Villaraigosa, artists and celebrities like Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, Anthony Bourdain, and Conan O’Brien, and many, many more. Anyone can sign up to be featured and he noted that, yes, he is getting a ton of entries. That being said, he is very much targeting unique looks and faces to make his 500 portraits the most interesting 500 portraits he can make. I’m sure mine was not the most interesting but, hey, maybe it helped.
For the future, he’s looking to get the project done as soon as he can but understands it will take time. He is in no hurry to exhibit them and likely won’t until the entire project is completed. He’s hoping to make a book and take the project to other countries and continents, capturing more cultures and points of view outside of America. FACE VALUE is as much about capturing what the 21st century person is as it is about representing how we all view ourselves and how we hope we are viewed. As I walked back to my bike, I was certainly thinking a lot about how I view myself and how I project myself. Even though his project will undoubtedly be blowing up soon, I knew that I was one of few people who had the opportunity to participate in a slightly therapeutic art experience where I had to confront myself: it was a privilege.