"The eyes may be the windows of the soul, but hands reveal our humanity.” 

With our hands we grasp the world. Hands are used as weapons yet they can also heal the sick – they can caress or crush. There are chakras in our hands and worshipers stand with palms raised. Fortune tellers unveil our futures and reveal our pasts in our palms, while handwriting is analyzed to expose our deepest secrets. Hands hold our absolute legal identities in the fingerprints which make each of us unique. Touch is one of our most perceptive senses. Hands distinguish humans from lower species.

While we control our world with our hands, the hands themselves are also shaped by our worlds. People who work with their hands – doctors, sculptors, magicians – reveal their histories in their hands, whether it’s their softness from being protected in surgical gloves, nicks and burns from working with tools, or flexibility and grace from performing prestidigitation.

I love to make portraits, but I prefer to view my subjects from my own angle. MANUAL is a collection of portraits of people from diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages, and cultures from around the globe. In each hand portrait, I study the person’s dominant hand, checking it for evidence of how they have lived, who they are, and what they may become.

I collaborate with my subjects to expose their hands and their personalities. Without the distraction of faces, these images become honest and deeply perceptive portraits, reflecting the lifestyle, habits, and sensitivity of each subject. 

Using 19th century collodion wet-plate techniques, I photographed each person’s dominant hand. Each person also collaborates with me to create a 14” x 11” silver gelatin photogram of their hand. And finally each subject provides a hand written statement.

The 3 elements: glass plate, photogram, and handwriting are scanned and combined into one portrait of the individual.

The series comprises 150 portraits (on view at www.manualproject.com). Two books from the series are available as well.

— Bill Westheimer