Cult of photography


Jenna Han, untitled

My eyes were burning and a strange mask had been strapped to my face. I was lying in a room with hard floors, bright lights and strange white curtains. Above me, a fuzzy silhouette pointed to a shiny, multi-legged device and said, “It’s your turn.”

If you’ve ever had a friend who was in a photography class, you probably know what it’s like to be inducted into the cult of the portrait subjects. After you’ve signed your name in blood in the big golden book (or something like that), there’s nothing to be done but cheerfully participate in the creepy rituals. Just put on the ankle shackles, drink the goat’s blood and don’t ask questions.

After all, the cult leader probably knows as little as you do. What, exactly, did a terracotta warrior mask and a black pea coat have to do with my friend Jenna’s analog photography assignment entitled “Body”?

“I thought it would look cool,” Jenna said while she applied my black eyeliner.

“Okayouch,” I said.

You might wonder why I agreed to do this, and the answers are that (1) Jenna is actually much sweeter and less likely to found her own Jonestown than I’ve made it seem, and (2) after all of my adventures involving portraiture, I thought it might be time to step in front of the camera.

While Jenna photographed two other inductees, I tried to get into character. Because I’m blind as a bat and couldn’t wear my glasses with the mask on, I had absolutely no idea what I looked like. Maybe this could help me believe I was a real terracotta warrior.

My art history class is about western civilization, so I turned to Wikipedia to research my new identity. I knew that the Terracotta Army was discovered by Chinese farmers (of the Shaanxi province in 1974), but I had no idea that for centuries before that, people had been finding chunks of terracotta in the soil and at one point maybe even dug down to the army but didn’t realize it.

The first emperor of China commissioned the army’s creation so that he’d be protected in the afterlife. His burial mound is at Mount Li, about 1.5 km away, and includes a replica of his imperial palace. It also once had 100 rivers of FLOWING MERCURY and ceiling frescoes of the constellations, at least according to a historian from 145 BC.

I’d always imagined the 8,000 soldiers in one giant pit, but there are actually four main pits and dozens of auxiliary pits filled with terracotta entertainers, burial sites for horses and even an entire underground park filled with bronze cranes and ducks.

I tried to imagine just what people had to go through to make this great treasure. The monumental task employed 700,000 workers, many of whom apparently produced body parts assembly-line style. How loyal do you have to be to the Emperor to spend your life creating terracotta legs? “Left, right, left, right, left…”

At this point, it felt like the mask was chemically bonding to my face, which was a good sign. In my research, I’d found that the taller the terracotta warrior, the higher their rank in the army. I deemed my gangly, 6’5” self a general in the terracotta army. With my nose in the air, I rose solemnly and prepared for my portrait.

Jenna sat me on a stool and started setting up the shot while I attempted to arrange my face into the placid, powerful stare of the terracotta warrior. If anyone knows they’re in control, it’s these dudes.

CLICK. “Raise your head higher.” CLICK. “Okay, we’re done.”

I sat for a moment, stunned by how quick the process had been. The creative windstorm of an amateur artist comes in great, shaky gusts and passes before you can blink.

A few weeks later, Jenna handed me two prints, and I saw myself with the mask on for the very first time. I was surprised by how smooth and stony the film camera made the paper mask look, and by how it had shaped my eyes.

I’m not sure what to think about the tufts of hair sticking out from behind the mask. They destroy the illusion that my face is transforming into terracotta, but they give the picture more of a human story. I look like a disheveled guest at a masquerade party or a wannabe superhero.

Please tell me, dear reader, that just for a second you saw a terracotta warrior in the picture. The general is pleased.

BONUS LINK: My other adventure with Jenna, involving the naked Garrett Royce Kovaks, is here.

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