Self-portraits – Elina Brotherus

It is not clear why the author of the course notes picked two nude self-portraits of Elina Brotherus as illustrations. While most of her work (Brotherus, 2016) includes the photographer as her own model, she is fully-clothed for the majority of it.

Elina Brotherus (b 1972) is a Finnish photographer, now based in Finland and France.  “I was left with this idea of what adults do,” she says. “They do chemistry and if that doesn’t work, they study art. So that’s what I did.” (quoted by Sherwin, 2010). In this she is modest, having gained both an MSc in chemistry and an MA in photography. At the time of Sherwin’s Guardian article, she was best known for her landscape and figure-in-landscape. Her autobiographical photography came later and reflects an earlier period, including the ‘Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe’ and the Model Studies series.

There are differences between Brotherus’ work and that of Francesca Woodman. With Brotherus, I get a much stronger impression of narrative, within individual images and in the series. And, of course, Woodman denied herself the opportunity to mature as a photographer.

The link between Brotherus’ early and late periods of autobiographical work is illustrated in the series ‘12 ans après (12 Years Later) made in 1999 and 2011-13. During a period as artist-in-residence to the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, she made the series ‘Suites françaises’ showing herself learning French with the aid of Post-it notes stuck to parts of her guesthouse rooms. Returning to teach a workshop in 2011, she stayed in the same guesthouse and recorded many of the same places and scenes; the two sets of images creating a dialogue across the years.

Unlike, say, Cindy Sherman whose self-portraits have an air of artifice and glamour, Brotherus is brutally honest about herself and her emotions. Probably the most personal series is ‘Annonciation‘, made between 2009 and 2013, dealing with five years of unsuccessful infertility treatment and her final acceptance of involuntary childlessness.

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school (source: elinabrotherus.com)

Broken up into years by facsimile diary pages, the series charts a progress through hope, despair and tears to a form of acceptance, a female figure with her back to camera in the middle of a snowy landscape.

As a sort of follow-up, ‘Carpe Fucking Diem‘ (2011-15) “ is an attempt to reconstruct the meaning of life for a future that is not what I imagined it to be”. Shot partly in parallel with ‘Annonciation‘ and partly in the two years afterward, the series takes Brotherus from those depths to a new surreal view of things around her. In her own words, “I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger. Carpe Fucking Diem is also about inventing strange games for the playground of the camera.”

Reference

Asbæk, M (s.d.) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.martinasbaek.com/Artists/Elina-Brotherus&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Brotherus, E (2016) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.elinabrotherus.com&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Sherwin, S (2010) Artist of the week 104: Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/sep/08/artist-week-elina-brotherus-photography&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

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Self-portraits – Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the tragically young age of 22, having failed a suicide attempt the previous year (Wikipedia, 2017). There, I’ve said it – as has pretty much every reviewer of her work that I have read; most use it as their starting point, or even as the central theme for discussing Woodman’s work. I find myself questioning the standard analysis (that her photography indicated a troubled mind and foreshadowed her suicide) as being just to trite, too ‘easy’. She had, after all, been photographing since the age of 13 – almost half of her short lifetime, and I doubt that she was suicidal for all that time.

Indeed, some recent commentaries (Gumport 2011, Salter 2012, Keiffer 2016) suggest that Woodman was self-aware and ambitious, with depression only entering the story around 1980 as a result of lack of recognition, refusal of funding, and a failed relationship.

I also wonder about discussing Woodman’s work as a completed oeuvre. Clearly, it is ‘complete’ in the sense that there will be no more of it but a majority of the images I have found online are from her high school and student days (up to late 1978) and have the look of student experiment, cutting loose with subject matter and camera techniques. I suggest that we are looking at the juvenilia of a potentially great artist, tragically unrealised.

Woodman’s photographs (and some surviving video) are varied and fascinating. Almost all feature human figures, herself or other young models/students and in many of them, the use of long exposures has blurred the body almost out of recognition. A large proportion feature nudity (so public display of anything pre-1976 is problematic) or vintage costume, both of which contribute to a timeless (or outside-of-time) quality.

According to Kate Salter, Woodman says the reason for taking so many self portraits was ‘It’s a matter of convenience – I am always available.’ (quoted in Salter 2012)

It is Woodman’s blurred images (examples here and here) that have attracted most comment – probably because of the association with self-effacement, disappearance and her eventual suicide. However, her sharper images in which she gazes direct to camera seem (to me) to say more about the artist herself. ‘Me and My Roomate, Boulder, Colorado is straight cheesecake, a reminder of happy student days. An untitled image from the ‘Polka Dots‘ collection, and the well-known Providence, Rhode Island ,1976 show a wary, slightly haunted expression in images with surreal elements. In contrast, in ‘From a Series on Angels, Rome, Italy 1977she wears a rather stern and slightly intimidating expression.

Overall, a complex character and a great loss of potential, but interpreting her work as presaging her suicide is just too simplistic.

References

Gumport, E  (2011) The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Keiffer, M (2016) Haunted Genius: The Tragic Life and Death of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/haunted-genius-the-tragic-life-and-death-of-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Salter, K (2102) Blurred genius: the photographs of Francesca Woodman  [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9279676/Blurred-genius-the-photographs-of-Francesca-Woodman.html&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Wikipedia (2017) Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman&gt; [Accessed 13/9/17].