FIVE years ago, Arne Svenson was working at the Mutter Museum, a Philadelphia-based institution dedicated to preserving its founder’s landmark collection of medical artifacts. Photographing odd parts of human anatomy for display in its fund-raising calendar, Svenson soon discovered that the museum hid its more bizarre items in its back rooms.
“The director, Gretchen Worden, had asked me not to go anywhere private, but she knew full well I would,” the photographer said. It was not long before Svenson happened upon a strange fiberglass sculpture of a woman’s head, complete with wig and a pair of quite ordinary glasses.
It was the work of Philadelphia sculptor Frank Bender. Hired by police departments across the U.S., using as much data as he can collect, Bender sculpts likenesses of the faces of murder victims whose bodies have been found decomposed beyond recognition. Using such a forensic reconstruction, the police try to identify the victims -- in this case, Linda Keyes, discovered in early 1980 lying in a field outside Philadelphia -- in hopes of better pursuing their killers.
“I held it in my hand -- it was painted a weird blue color as it only had to be photographed in black and white -- and I became instantly fascinated by the subjectivity of the sculptor who made it,” Svenson said.
The 53-year-old photographer, much of whose career has been a meditation on the undiscovered work of other sometimes-offbeat artists, realized that he too wanted to photograph the head.
“I thought, ‘What can I do to further humanize this?’ ”
Answering this question would take him three years.
The result, Svenson’s imposing, 40-by-50-inch portraits of forensic sculptures by Bender and the Mill Valley-based artist Gloria Nusse, will be shown for the first time at Western Project in Culver City. The exhibition opens Sept. 10.
At first glance, Svenson’s new series is a natural extension of his earlier work, including his recent book, “Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots.” In it, Svenson assembled photographs of dressed-up parrots taken in the late 1960s by Long Island homemaker Alba Ballard and her husband, Marvin.
Thomas Sokolowski, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, who has exhibited Svenson’s photography, argued that “he works like a curator almost, using other artists’ materials, to ask an audience to say, ‘What do you make of that?’ ”
The photographer maintains strongly that “Arne Svenson: Portraits,” the title of the Western Project show, is more than commentary. The series inspired him to confront another theme evident in his previous work: the reanimation of lifeless forms.
In his popular photographs of socks turned into children’s toys, chronicled in the 2003 publication “sock monkeys (200 out of 1,863),” Svenson sought to breathe life back into a beloved plaything.
“They were first made by a grandmother, for a long while clutched by a child to its chest and then discarded,” he said. “I wanted, in my photos, to return each hand toy to the space it was created for.”
With his new portraits, Svenson moved into more problematic territory. “I’m dealing with real people who were murdered; obviously it’s more profound,” he said. “But the process was the same: Can I, as an artist, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to these ‘masks’ and make the viewer walk into the room and think they’re real?”
Svenson was lucky to secure the cooperation of Bender and, later, Nusse.
Bender, who is something of celebrity thanks to his success in helping solve murders -- he has been featured on “60 Minutes” and profiled in Esquire -- was intrigued by Svenson’s interest. “His vision is totally different to mine,” he noted.
In contrast to Bender, Svenson has little time for the gruesome particularities of his subject’s deaths. Such details blocked his ability to imagine new life for his subjects. “I had to avoid the ‘true crime’ aspect,” he acknowledged recently, sitting in his Tribeca studio.
This left him searching for another way to “see” his subjects. “I could not ‘get them,’ ” he said. “They looked like nothing more than beautiful photographs of interesting sculptures. But they were not alive as people.”
Svenson took himself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wandered the portrait galleries. And he looked back at his work. “What makes a portrait compelling,” he reminded himself, “is when the eyes are alive and addressing the viewer.”
Svenson determined that his fiberglass characters had to look straight at the camera.
Not only did he light the eyes -- adding, for instance, in the case of a little boy captured in “Portrait #4,” two small spots to give him a childlike twinkle -- but he went further, ensuring that only the eyes would be in focus.
Tilting his traditional, 4-by-5 view camera fractions of an inch vertically and horizontally, he altered the plane between the lens and the film, forcing much of the image slightly out of focus. All he had to do was ensure that the area across the eyes was in focus, an often maddening task.
The formula was not foolproof. Bender painted the eyes of his faces. Nusse used glass eyes. In the case of “Portrait #1,” a Jane Doe from Marin County, the paths of vision in her eyes did not match. Svenson opted to concentrate on her right eye. “When they’re looking at an audience, I wanted them to say, ‘Find me,’ ” he said. “I also wanted them to be looking at their murderer.”
“Concentrating on the eyes,” argued Jane Reed, a San Francisco-based photography curator and editor who has followed Svenson’s work for two decades, “makes you ask what’s behind them -- and leads you to see a core of sadness associated with their deaths, and our own, that’s almost overwhelming.”
For Svenson, the eyes turned out to be the start of the humanizing process. He experimented with the backdrops. On “Portrait #5,” an older woman looking blankly at the camera, he opted for a gray background because “I felt she was one of the most lost, and I wanted to match the flatness of her expression.”
He dressed them. “Portrait #6,” of a black woman with a decidedly plaintive look, demanded a simple white shirt. “She seemed so very Protestant,” he explained, “like someone who went to church and who could’ve been a nurse.”
With “Portrait #2,” one of more than 350 women found murdered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, over the last 12 years, Svenson ended up putting his own shirt on the fiberglass sculpture.
“I was standing there behind my camera half naked,” he said. “The attorney general of the state of Chihuahua was in the next room, a gun on his desk, but what choice did I have? I couldn’t take the head anywhere else.”
At the time, Svenson took digital images of the nine heads of the Ciudad Juarez victims sculpted by Bender. Disseminated widely, the photos led the identification of one victim.
With his “Arne Svenson: Portraits” going public, further identifications are possible. Though hopeful this will occur, Svenson is also anxious: “I hope whoever it is understands these portraits are the antithesis of exploitation and that somehow I have done justice making them remembered for their lives as against their deaths.”
The presence of such a knowing eye could answer the question that led Svenson on his photographic journey. “Am I getting closer to revealing what these people looked like or further away?” he asked.
Now all the photographer and the viewer have is ambiguity, a quality he still finds satisfying.
“I want the viewer to be rendered as off-balance as the victim.”
‘Arne Svenson: Portraits’
Where: Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City
When: Sept. 10 through Oct. 8
Contact: (310) 838-0609, www.western-project.com