Curator Photography Athol McCredie takes inspiration from a set of photographs in our collection to explore the idea that there may be another version of you, dear reader, out there.
Most of us have had to choose a photograph of our self for a passport, Facebook page, dating site, or a CV. We might have a number of shots taken so we look our best. But somehow they all seem a bit embarrassing, and never quite the way we imagine ourselves.
The camera’s dispassionate eye doesn’t match our internal view and it’s as though there is a stranger (or many strangers) out there who we painfully have to accept are us.
When I was researching my book New Zealand Photography Collected I was struck by a set of photographs taken by the Spencer Digby studio in which the sitters are negotiating this issue. As in many a photography studio, several shots would be taken in a sitting to ensure there was at least one good one.
An economical technique used for some portraits was to shoot two images on the same sheet of film, revealing the attempts of the sitters to project their best self.
What we end up with are a series of double portraits that prompt me to think about the notion of the multiple self.
The idea of the double has long featured in fiction. Perhaps best known is Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 story, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Dr Jekyll felt he had certain evil impulses and to hide them developed a serum that transformed him into Mr Hyde. In that form he could give in to these impulses without his actions being traced back to Dr Jekyll. It all came to a bad end of course. Dr Jekyll eventually lost control and Mr Hyde took over.
The novella has been described as a guidebook to the era in which it was written, reflecting the Victorian pressure to maintain outward respectability and good character while repressing ‘immoral’ urges.
Perhaps also reflecting its own era was the 1957 best-selling book and spin-off film The Three Faces of Eve that placed unacceptable desires and the double itself outside the conscious awareness of the subject.
Written by psychiatrists Corbett H Thigpen and Hervey M Cleckley, the book was based on a case study of a woman who had multiple personalities (dissociative personality disorder). One of these, Eve White, is a timid, self-effacing wife and mother who is subject to severe and blinding headaches and occasional blackouts.
Then there is the wild and naughty Eve Black. She knows everything about Eve White, but not the reverse. “A moment ago she was the nicest girl in town… A moment from now she will be anybody’s pick-up” proclaimed one of the more lurid versions of the movie poster.
In therapy a further personality emerged in the form of Jane, and by helping her deal with repressed memories of a childhood trauma the psychiatrist reconciled the two Eves into this new identity. The movie version starred Joanne Woodward in her first major role, winning her an Academy Award for playing the three Eves.
If we worry about our darker self we might also be concerned about our better version. You may have seen the 2013 British movie The Double that is both hilarious and disturbing.
Loosely based on a short novel with the same title by Fyodor Dostoyevski, its main character is Simon James, a downtrodden, reserved worker in a dreary, Kafkesque bureaucracy. One day a new employee named James Simon arrives who looks identical to Simon.
Nobody seems to notice the similarity however. James is everything Simon is not: charming, outgoing, popular, and assertive. He wins the bosses’ approval for ideas that are Simon’s and seduces the co-worker Simon is secretly in love with.
When the take-over of Simon’s life becomes so complete that James turns up at the funeral of Simon’s mother, Simon lands him a punch that gives them both a bleeding nose. This reveals they are somehow linked physically and suggests to Simon how he might rid himself of James permanently.
The double life
My first awareness of the idea of the double probably arose by reading Superman and Batman comics as a child. Each character lives a double life. Batman’s off-duty disguise as playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne seemed credible enough.
But I never really understood how Clark Kent could withstand Lois Lane’s persistent suspicion that he was Superman when all he did was act timid and wear a business suit and glasses.
However, one commentator has pointed out that in 1940s America people tended to think that only wimps wore glasses. Maybe, but there are many unanswered questions about Superman (why doesn’t he use his powers to eliminate global poverty rather than always fighting bad guys?…).
Other selves and other universes
Can our other self be of another gender, as suggested by this double exposure blunder? Psychologist Carl Jung certainly thought an inner personality of the opposite sex lies within our unconscious. These are each archetypes within the realm of the collective unconscious that we carry within us.
He called the feminine personality within men the anima and the masculine within women the animus. Jung’s theories are complex, but in essence he believed that it is our lifelong task to liberate or develop our self from the persona fashioned by society as well as from the undifferentiated unconscious. Part of this individuating involves developing our anima or animus in a balanced way.
The paired images of US Marine Sergeant Dietrich taken while stationed in New Zealand during World War II are not so different from each other. But I can’t help imagining them multiplied to infinity, like a hall of mirrors, each with the same jaunty cap.
The idea of multiple universes was developed long ago within Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. More recently, many theories within theoretical physics imply their existence – some as parallel universes in which there are copies of you reading this blog right now!
Some say that the existence of other universes could never be scientifically proven because a universe is, by definition, all-encompassing. But others argue that collisions could occur and that indeed our own universe was created out of such a collision, so we could search for traces of this event.
Thinking about multiple universes makes my head hurt, but back in this one, if you are interested in finding your double, the internet really increases the chances.
There are a number of sites and apps that help you to do this (just search ‘find my double’). It is worth reading one person’s experimentation though, because it may not be exactly what you expect.