Self-portraits – examples and comments

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.

Reference

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].

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Self-portraits – Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing is a conceptual artist who uses photography or video to record her / her subjects’ performances. Her breakthrough piece “Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93)” is an exercise in breaking through the perception of English reserve. The device of having subjects hold up a piece of paper expressing their innermost thoughts has penetrated popular culture to the extent of becoming a scene in Richard Curtis’ film ‘Love Actually‘ (2003).

She continued to explore the theme of emotional honesty and confessional with the videos ‘Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.(1994), ‘Secrets and Lies‘ (2009) and ‘Trauma‘(2010) in which her subjects’ anonymity is protected by masks bought from a fancy-dress shop.

Masks are the major feature in Wearing’s so-called self-portraits, several of which can be found in the Maureen Paley online gallery. The set referred to in the course notes is ‘Album‘ (2003) in which she recreates images of her family members from various photo albums. She has also portrayed herself as some of her artist-heroes, such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe and, earlier this year an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (Searle 2017) in which she parallels the mask-disguise work of Claude Cahun.

A common feature of all of these works is the thick silicone masks that Wearing wears, usually only her eyes disconcertingly  visible through deliberately rough-cut holes, and this is where I find myself in difficulty with the definition of ‘self-portrait’. Unlike the work of Cindy Sherman, who is recognisably herself, whatever persona she is portraying in her images, Wearing’s mask images appear more as disguise than self-portrait.

sculpture-of-the-artists-003Wearing explains the process of creating the masks and the photographs in an extended Guardian piece (Wearing 2012). These are thick silicone masks, created by a mask-maker with training from Madame Tussauds, intended to remove the contours of Wearing’s face  and almost every other piece of visible skin. This image is of the mask representing her sister, and includes coverage of the throat as well as the face.

This is taken to extremes in the image portraying Wearing’s brother, Richard, naked from the waist up and combing his hair. The torso, described as a body mask, is several inches thick and causes me to ask at what stage does something cease to be a mask and become a piece of sculpture in its own right. I have to conclude with a personal opinion that these images are not self-portraits at all and may not even be disguise, but that Wearing is using her body as an armature for a piece of sculpture created by (and presumably photographed by) somebody else. She is the mastermind behind a production team and a piece of performance art, but she appears to have more in common with Gregory Crewdson than with Elina Brotherus.

References

Maureen Paley (s.d.) Gillian Wearing [online] Available at <https://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Searle, A (2017) A ghost in kiss curls: how Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a mask [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/08/gillian-wearing-claude-cahun-mask-national-portrait-gallery&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Sooke, A (2012) Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9149522/Gillian-Wearing-Everyones-got-a-secret.html&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Wearing, G (2012) Gillian Wearing takeover: behind the mask – the Self Portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

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].

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].