In conversation with 
Hayley Campbell

(Interview originally conducted for an article on the PERFECT VESSELS exhibition at the Mütter Museum)

When did you start photographing the skulls at the Mütter Museum and why?

It all originated with the idea of skulls as kinds of sculpture. I’d been working on the project on and off since 2008, shooting tests with skulls loaned by friends and acquaintances — you’d be surprised how many skulls turn up if you ask around — and had been looking for a collection to photograph. Megan Rosenbloom (USC; Death Salon) suggested the Mütter, which I remembered from my college days in Philadelphia. I knew that the Mütter would have some skulls with quite unusual shapes, and the more I researched the more excited I became, because they have original records about most of the skulls in their collection. The provenance of most skulls is unknown, so to have the histories behind most of these is a real treasure.

What were you hoping to achieve with the project?

Primarily, I wanted to emphasize the skull as a sculptural object. I like the idea that, like ancient vases you now see in museums, something once utilitarian can also be seen as an object with great aesthetic beauty. Skulls are infinitely complex shapes, with incredible detail that many are not be aware of, since they are such iconic forms and we see representations of them everywhere in today’s culture. 

I also wanted people to think of them as vessels in both the everyday and metaphysical senses of the term. The word ‘Vessel’ has many connotations, meaning a craft one travels in, a container, or a conduit for powerful energy. A skull is all those things: the craft in which our psyche travels during our mortal voyage, a jar for our brain (and therefore consciousness), and an area through which Eastern mystics believe our energy must travel to transcend earthly existence, so it fit. And, of course, most vessels, containers and vases are also symmetrical. Symmetry has also been a strong source of abstractions forming patterns — think Rorschach — and the various textures of bone resolve as powerfully subjective forms when mirrored.

Why do we revere symmetry in faces when actually it looks a bit weird?

We’re drawn toward symmetrical forms in part because we are, ourselves, symmetrical. That’s a major reason why that balance turns up in classic architecture, crafts, design, etc. The other reason has to do with evolution. Most natural forms are symmetrical because it’s extremely adaptable, it works, and has been refined over time. As for faces, there’s a great study, Symmetry and Human Facial Attractiveness, that goes into detail showing that people with more symmetrical faces will earn more, are more likely to be chosen as sexual partners, are considered to be more trustworthy, and so on. It has primarily to do with symmetry being an indicator of good health, which leads to it being more visually appealing to other humans. 

But we are rarely, if ever, perfectly balanced. And, it does look weird if you make a face perfectly symmetrical. We pick up on the falseness immediately: facial recognition is a large part of our daily experience, and we are uniquely adept at it. In the case of skulls, however, they are part of our understructure and not as common a thing to see in daily life, so there’s considerably more leeway. 

Is perfection more interesting than what we have?

There’s a great Kundera quote: “Beauty means that a particular specimen closely resembles the original prototype,” which explains why we are drawn towards symmetry in the first place, but I don’t think it’s always more interesting in actual life. To me, a human face with all its idiosyncrasies is ultimately more fascinating than a balanced one, so I suppose I have a different standard for what works in life as opposed to art. With the Perfect Vessels project I get to have it both ways: by repeating imperfections, I get closer to perfection.

What did you learn about skulls when you were doing it?

Several things, actually: your skull has 24 separate bones when you are born, but 22 by the time you reach adulthood. Bone is actually an organ - it produces blood, and is a key element of the immune system. And bone is a kind of recording instrument. You can see if duress occurred when a person was growing, because nonessential bone growth will pause; you’ll see horizontal striations on teeth indicating paused growth (Hypoplasia) during intense trauma.

But one of the most fascinating things I discovered was the long-standing link between skulls and drinking vessels. I learned that skulls have been used as cups, chalices, and bowls for centuries. Many believe the practice has existed as long as man has. Warriors drank from the skulls of the vanquished to underline their supremacy. Hindus and Buddhists sipped from Kapalas (ornate skull-cups) to reinforce the idea of life’s impermanence. There are amazing linguistic links in most languages where the words for ‘skull’ and ‘cup’ and ‘bowl’ are often identical: in English, for example, ‘noggin’ originally meant ‘cup.’ Lord Byron drank from a cup he’d had made from the skull of a monk found on his property, and wrote a poem about it (Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull, 1808).

How big a variation is there between skulls?

Oh, it’s infinite. Just as no two faces are absolutely identical, neither are any two skulls. Another factor is that the conditions of recovery and storage are different for each, so some can look like ancient stone or petrified wood, and others like polished ivory. This was a major reason I chose to present them all as black and white images — it served as a kind of equalizer between the different skulls, their tones, and their conditions.

A funny thing began to happen as I worked on this project: I began to visualize the skulls beneath the faces of people I’d come across in daily life. During conversations; while passing people on the street, on the El or the Trolley; I was thinking about what each person’s skull looked like, and how it influenced the shape of their face. Eventually it felt like that was all I was seeing! I felt a lot of relief when a Mütter staffer who’d been cleaning and restoring these skulls for the better part of a year asked if this had started to happen to me yet.

And how big a variation is there between each side of an individual skull?

There are always variations from side to side. We’re all symmetrical, in that key elements of our physiology are paired — cheekbones, eyes, and so on — but we are not perfectly aligned. We’ve all seen images of people’s faces where the left side and the right side are mirrored, and each looks different.  But as a medical and pathology museum, the Mütter has all kinds of oddities and pathological samples, so those differences are often even more dramatic. Robert Hicks told me that if a physician can see asymmetry from “the end of the bed” then the patient is in the weeds. Well, the skulls in the Mütter collection are meant to illustrate rare and extreme medical conditions, so you can imagine…

Did anything about the skulls become more obvious as they were mirrored?

Yes, actually. Areas of the skull and head which have for centuries been considered auspicious in Eastern thought often became stylized when repeated. The sagittal suture, at the top of the head, known as the Brâhmarandhra, or “Aperture of Brâhman,” is the portal through which your life energy (pranā) is guided to flow when you finally break the cycle of reincarnation (Samsara). That’s a major reason cremation has retained its popularity in India: the intense heat is meant to crack the skull open, and is therefore thought to aid release. The nasofrontal suture (located on the lower forehead, between where our eyebrows would be) corresponds to the area where the inner or ‘third eye’ (Ajna) is thought to be located. Some, like Dr. Rick Strassman, believe that the ‘third eye’ was originally a photoreceptor that - during our evolution - drew back into the head and formed the pineal gland. 

Because my images match at the center, these areas often become quite stylized and refined, appearing even more like apertures.

Do you have a favorite one?

It’s nearly impossible for me to choose! (laughs). My favorites change from day to day, but I’ll give you a favorite visual, and a favorite story:

There’s a skull that’s used as an example of the effects of syphilitic necrosis that has incredibly intricate patterning on the forehead from the decay. After my mirroring, impressionistic and fascinating shapes emerged — particularly on the forehead area. I’ve used it on the cover of the catalogue, so it’s certainly a consistent favorite.

My favorite story is that of Geza Uirmeny, who attempted suicide at age 70. The description goes on to say that he survived, then “lived until 80 without further melancholy” — I feel there’s a great lesson in that for us, the living. Visually, it worked very well given that history: as an elderly man he’d lost all his teeth, so he now has this huge, amazing grin: I hear: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!” each time I see that image.

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HAYLEY CAMPBELL is the author of The Art of Neil Gaiman, and writes regularly for BuzzFeed, VICE, and New Statesman

© 2017 David Orr