Self-portraits in one form or another are all around us. The smartphone ‘selfie’ is one of the defining features of our age, having an OED entry and an example in the Time 100 list. Many of these appear on social media every day and my general impression is that they are narcissistic, sometimes honest but mostly presenting a glamourised version of the poster’s life, particularly of their holidays and hobbies. The messages contained in the images are “I am/was here”, “I have done this” or just “Look at me”. Even the art-world-canonised Francesca Woodman was not above this kind of thing, ‘Me and my Room-mate‘ is a straight cheesecake celebration of being young and beautiful.
Self-portrait has been used to express deeper ideas. The course notes give two examples, the works of Francesca Woodman and Elina Brotherus (in my view, Gillian Wearing does not count as self-portraiture, for reasons previously noted). Woodman was experimenting with fairly abstract ideas, and used herself as a model “because I am always available”. A lot of Brotherus’ self-portraiture work, particularly ‘Annonciation’ is autobiographical so the self-portrait format is a given. In the case of ‘Annonciation’, nakedness in some images is entirely appropriate – the series describes a process (infertility treatment) that the most intimate parts of her body were being subjected to, so it is reasonable to show that body.
Sean O’Hagan (2013) came up with a list of ‘the 10 best photographic self-portraits’ which is necessarily subjective. It includes one from Woodman and one from Wearing, but he overlooks Brotherus. Six of the ten are self-indulgent to some degree – the images are intended to represent the author. The most disturbing of these is Giles Duley’s ‘Becoming the Story: Self-portrait, 2011‘, also known as the ‘Broken Statue’, showing Duley following a triple amputation after a landmine explosion; he has, literally, become the story and the image is an honest depiction of the kind of damage these weapons can do.
John Coplans’ ‘Back with Arms Above’ (1984) uses the body to create an abstract image. Unlike, say Bill Brandt, who created abstract nudes using models, Coplans has used his own body presumably because, like Woodman, it was available.
Trish Morrissey, like Gillian Wearing, photographs herself (or is photographed) in character as other people. The difference is that we see her own face and body. For instance, in the series ‘Front’ (2005-2007) she found families on the beach and replaced one female family member (changing clothes with her) who then took the photograph. Viewing this series, and others, it is disconcerting to see the same face cropping up. These works play with the nature of identity and of family album photograph.
We are asked whether these images would ‘work’ for an outsider without any accompanying text. As so often, the answer is “it depends”. In a single image, without explanation, it would not be obvious that we are seeing a self-portrait. When looking at a series, such as ‘Annonciation‘ or ‘Front’ it is obvious that the same person appears in all the images and we know that we are looking either at a model or a self-portrait. In the case of ‘Front’, the appearance of the same face in multiple contexts is particularly thought-provoking. It is interesting that Morrisey’s series’ are presented without text (other than image titles) on her website. Whether further explanatory text is required depends on your view of the photographer/subject/viewer triangle and on who is responsible for extracting the meaning from the image.
O’Hagan, S (2013) The 10 best … photographic self-portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/23/10-best-photographic-self-portraits > [Accessed 1/10/2017].