In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that a portrait of Andy Warhol concealing his face behind both hands, by the photographer Duane Michals, is an image where, "Warhol hides nothing; he offers his hands to read, quite openly; and the punctum [or point of specific interest] is not the gesture but the slightly repellent substance of those spatulate nails, at once soft and hard-edged." Unflattering descriptions of Andy Warhol's paws aside, Barthes makes an interesting point: can a photograph of someone's hands really reveal as much as a picture of their face? Is a hand really as articulate as a pair of eyes and more evocative than say, a knee, or indeed any other part of the body?
Speaking with Hands, currently on view at the Guggenheim, proposes that our extremities are actually uniquely articulate. The 175 works taken from the Buhl Collection's approximately 1,000 photographs featuring hands, includes examples from every era starting with William Henry Fox Talbot and concluding with Gregory Crewdson. Curated in roughly chronological and roughly thematic order, the narrative qualities of each image really shine.
As the catalogue essay puts it, hands are "disproportionate bearers of meaning." Not only are fingerprints the site which identifies us as unique individuals but hands also variously symbolize action, compassion, prayer, aggression, affection or introspection. In fact, a walk around this richly enjoyable exhibition would suggest that there is scarcely an aspect of human existence which cannot be represented with an image of hands.
And while many of photography's most recognizable images are here, the role hands play in each one is a bit surprising. In Diane Arbus's Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, the kid's manic expression seems to dominate our attention but, in fact, it is the toy in his tightened fist that gives the image its meaning. In El Lissitzky's The Constructor, one intelligent eye can be seen gleaming as a disembodied hand draws a halo around the head with a pair of compasses. And Rodchenko's Mother, shows the woman as being herself an allegory of sight as she peers through the lens of reading glasses held up to her eye.
One of the exhibition's most arresting images is a large-scale portrait by Rineke Dijkstra - entitled Tecla, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, May 16 1994, it shows a standing, nude young woman who holds a new-born infant to her breast and gazes out at the camera with a mix of wariness and determination. Taken the day after she had given birth, the image's cool tones are only interrupted by the unnerving thin stream of blood trickling down one of her legs. Her hands cover her baby protectively and her direct stare creates a compelling psychological study of a woman for whom motherhood is still a new and unsettling experience.
In Gabriel Orozco's My Hands are My Heart, a pair of photographs which show the artist firstly with his hands pressed together, and then with them open, to reveal that the imprint of his hands has molded a chunk of clay into the form of a human heart. As with many of the photographs in this exhibition, a seemingly simple image of hands leads to a complex meditation - in this case, on the relationship between heart and hands, character and deeds.
Speaking with Hands is the byproduct of one collector's mania - which led Henry M. Buhl, himself a photographer, to gather together this enormous group of works addressing this seemingly limited theme. In a little over ten years, Buhl amassed a collection whose richness and variety can be seen in this exhibition, which seems almost inexhaustible in terms of its historical, artistic and psychological interest. Here, hands really do speak, and they certainly have plenty to say - if you stop to listen.
SARA CARSON is a New York-based writer.