Project One – Autobiographical Self-Portraiture
Most accepted notion of self-portraiture – using yourself to say something about yourself
“Francesca Stern Woodman (April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981) was an American photographer best known for her black and white pictures featuring either herself or female models.
Many of her photographs show women, naked or clothed, blurred (due to movement and long exposure times), merging with their surroundings, or whose faces are obscured.
Her work continues to be the subject of much critical acclaim and attention, years after she died by suicide at the age of 22, in 1981.” https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512 [accessed 16/08/2019].
“At the age of thirteen Francesca Woodman took her first self-portrait. From then, up until her untimely death in 1981, aged just 22, she produced an extraordinary body of work. Comprising some 800 photographs, Woodman’s oeuvre is acclaimed for its singularity of style and range of innovative techniques. From the beginning, her body was both the subject and object in her work.
The very first photograph taken by Woodman, Self-portrait at Thirteen, 1972, shows the artist sitting at the end of a sofa in an un-indentified space, wearing an oversized jumper and jeans, arm loosely hanging on the armrest, her face obscured by a curtain of hair and the foreground blurred by sudden movement, one hand holding a cable linked to the camera. In this first image the main characteristics at the core of Woodman’s short career are clearly visible, her focus on the relationship with her body as both the object of the gaze and the acting subject behind the camera.
Woodman tested the boundaries of bodily experience in her work and her work often suggests a sense of self-displacement. Often nude except for individual body parts covered with props, sometimes wearing vintage clothing, the artist is typically sited in empty or sparsely furnished, dilapidated rooms, characterised by rough surfaces, shattered mirrors and old furniture. In some images Woodman quite literally becomes one with her surroundings, with the contours of her form blurred by movement, or blending into the background, wallpaper or floor, revealing the lack of distinction of both – between figure and ground, self and world. In others she uses her physical body literally as a framework in which to create and alter her material identity. For instance, holding a sheet of glass against her flesh, squeezing her body parts against the glass and smashing her face, breasts, hips, buttocks and stomach onto the surface from various angles, Woodman distorts her physical features making them appear grotesque.
Through fragmenting her body by hiding behind furniture, using reflective surfaces such as mirrors to conceal herself, or by simply cropping the image, she dissects the human figure emphasising isolated body parts. In her photographs Woodman reveals the body simultaneously as insistently there, yet somehow absent. This game of presence and absence argues for a kind of work that values disappearance as its very condition.
Since 1986, Woodman’s work has been exhibited widely and has been the subject of extensive critical study in the United States and Europe. Woodman is often situated alongside her contemporaries of the late 1970s such as Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, yet her work also foreshadows artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sarah Lucas, Nan Goldin and Karen Finley in their subsequent dialogues with the self and reinterpretations of the female body.
Born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado, Francesca Woodman lived and worked in New York and Italy until her death in 1981. Since 1986 her work has been exhibited widely; significant solo presentations include Life in Motion: Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman, Tate Liverpool, UK (2018); On Being an Angel, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2015 – 2016), touring subsequently to Foam, Amsterdam (2016), Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris (2016), Moderna Museet, Malmo (2016 – 2017) and Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki (2017); Francesca Woodman, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2011 – 2012), touring to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012); Francesca Woodman: Retrospective, Sala Espacio AV, Murcia, touring to SMS Contemporanea, Siena (both 2009); Francesca Woodman: Photographs, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (2003); Francesca Woodman, Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris, touring to Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (both 1998); Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal (1999); The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1999); Centro Cultural TeclaSala, L’Hospitalet, Barcelona (1999 – 2000); Carla Sozzani Gallery, Milan, (2001); The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2001) and PhotoEspana, Centro Cultural Conde Duque, Madrid (2002). Woodman’s work is represented in the collections of major museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Tate/National Galleries of Scotland.” https://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/7-francesca-woodman/ [accessed 16/08/2019].
A selection of her work is shown below:
Woodman killed herself by throwing herself out of a loft window, possibly because she was turned down for a grant. Her friends had seen her improve from her usual destructive self and let their guard down; at least that is how they felt.
Her work is often dark, though sometimes amusing, but always imaginative. The last image abobe, suggests to me, a troubled state of mind.
Elina Brotherus (b. 1972) is a Finnish photographer and video artist specialising in self-portraits and landscapes.
Two images from her Model Studies are shown below:
Brotherus appears as herself in this series but, as the course text states, in a detached way. They are not particularly intimate and could easily be of another model. I am not clear whether she is investigating the act of photographing a model or investigating herself from the outside.
Her Anonciation series tracks the artist’s IVF treatment over a five-year period.
The course text uses her as an example of someone using photography as an investigative tool.
“Gillian Wearing is a contemporary British artist whose conceptually driven photographs and videos investigate power dynamics and voyeurism in everyday life. Focused more on capturing the self-awareness of her subjects than on issues of aesthetics, Wearing employs prosthetic masks, voice dubbing, altered photographs, in her portraits of herself, individuals, and groups. This is especially notable in her series of work Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-1993), in which the artist confronted strangers and asked them write what they were thinking, then photographed them holding the sign. “It’s always important as an artist to find a unique language, and that’s why the Signs excited me,” she said of her series. “They felt new. But I didn’t realize they were going to be so influential, on everything from advertising to people doing signs for their Facebook page.” Born in 1963 in Birmingham, United Kingdom, she moved to London in 1983, studying first at the Chelsea School of Art then Goldsmiths College where she became a part of the Young British Artists generation alongside Damien Hirst. In 1997, the artist was the winner of the prestigious Turner Prize for her 1996 piece “60 Minutes Silence”. She currently lives and works in London, UK. Today, Wearing’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., among others.” http://www.artnet.com/artists/gillian-wearing/ [accessed 19/02/2019].
How do the images make you feel?
I am drawn into the images taken by Woodward and frankly, a little disturbed by them. I know that these are self-portraits because I am told, but even if I did not know, I would assume that Woodward had issues. I do not know whether these images are a cry for help, or that they are just a by-product of her condition, but either way, they are powerful.
I enjoy the aesthetics of Brotherus’ images, but I find them a bit too detached, especially the Model Study. There are strong images in the Anonciation series, perhaps because the emotions associated with the moment are so visceral and dominant. I therefore gaze for longer on the images in this series and can feel more emotional about the narrative.
I find Wearing’s work extremely clever, but quite dull. I am not driven to gaze, even though I know she is behind the mask and that I can take time trying to see the boundary between her and the mask.
Do you think there is an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focussing on your identity in this way?
I do not believe Woodward was driven by narcissism, at least that is not my impression. She would appear to have had a restless mind and maybe her creative spirit could only be harnessed in the tiny world she created in her scenes. Nor do I believe Brotherus’ work is narcissistic; her images do not appear to be self-flattering, especially from the Anonciation series. It would be hard to argue that Wearing’s work is driven by ego either.
What is the significance of Brotherus’ nakedness?
I assume that Brotherus is laying bare her emotions, and what is displayed is the unvarnished truth.
Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
Generally I think they can work as ‘art’ but the images alone cannot carry the narrative they need to without text. The exception to this that I might make is the work of Woodward, which can be interpreted and which in most cases clearly convey a sense of frustration, sadness or outright madness.
Do you think any of these artists are addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?
In the sense that the subject matter is not limited to them, then yes. Depression affects many, as does the difficulty of conceiving. Family is universal.
Project Two – Masquerades
Nikki Lee (b. 1970) is a Korean-American visual artist. ‘After observing particular subcultures and ethnic groups, Nikki S. Lee adopts their general style and attitude through dress, gesture, and posture, and then approaches the group in her new guise. She introduces herself as an artist (though not everyone believes her or takes it seriously), and then spends several weeks participating in the group’s routine activities and social events while a friend or member of the group photographs her with an ordinary automatic “snapshot” camera. Lee maintains control of the final image, however, insofar as she chooses when to ask for a picture and edits what photographs will eventually be displayed.
From schoolgirl to senior citizen, punk to yuppie, rural white American to urban Hispanic, Lee’s personas traverse age, lifestyle, and culture. Part sociologist and part performance artist, Lee infiltrates these groups so convincingly that in individual photographs it is difficult to distinguish her from the crowd. However, when photographs from the projects are grouped together, it is Lee’s own Korean ethnicity, drawn like a thread through each scenario, which reveals her subtle ruse.
Lee’s success with these projects depends heavily on the appearance of the final photographic record. Her use of the snapshot aesthetic is partly what convinces us that she belongs—along with her uncanny ability to strike the right pose. The electronic date stamp in the corner confers scientific specificity and authenticity, while at the same time marking the picture as candid and familiar, the work of an unassuming amateur.
Lee’s projects propose questions regarding identity and social behavior. Do we choose our social groups consciously? How are we identified by other people? Is it possible for us to move between cultures? Lee believes that “essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real act is the transformation of our way of expression—the outward expression of our psyche.”
Born Lee Seung-Hee in Korea in 1970, Nikki S. Lee chose her American name when she came to New York in 1994. (The friend she asked to compile a list of American names used those appearing in that month’s Vogue, thus Nikki S. Lee inadvertently named herself after another much-photographed and image-changing woman, model Niki Taylor.) As a child growing up in the small South Korean village of Kye-Chang, Lee was exposed to a variety of foreign cultures through the mediating vehicles of television, popular periodicals, and music. In spite of her isolation, she developed a certain empathy for other cultures, an ability to empathize with other people that is clearly integral to her projects now. Her work is also unmistakably informed by Asian notions of identity, where identity is not a static set of traits belonging to an individual, but something constantly changing and defined through relationships with other people.’ http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Lee,+Nikki+S.&record=1 [accessed 21/08/2019].
The photographs were not taken by her, but by a selected member of the group or passer-by, with a point and shoot camera.
About Trish Morrissey. ‘My work is a study of the language of photography through still and moving images. I use performance and wit as tools to investigate the boundaries of photographic meaning. Although most of my work features myself as the protagonist, I don’t consider them to be self portraits per se, though they can be read that way. I use humour as a tool to disarm the viewer, which I hope evaporates leaving a slow burning psychologically tense afterglow. Weaving fact and fiction, I plunge into the heart of such issues as family experiences and national identities, feminine and masculine roles, and relationships between strangers.’ https://www.lensculture.com/trish-morrissey [accessed 21/08/2019].
‘The most outstanding body of work … is Morrissey’s wonderfully vibrant series of large format photographs titled ‘Front’ … Featuring photographs of families on beaches in the UK and Melbourne, Morrissey insinuates herself into the hierarchical family group (usually as the mother wearing the mother’s clothes) with unsettling results. The photographs are wonderful, the compositions implicitly believable in their conceptualisation, technically brilliant with beautiful control of light, colour and space. http://trishmorrissey.com/articles/reviews/review-artblart.html
Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her identity, the group identity of the people she photographs or both?
There are no sexual acts involved, nor are the portrayals in her work supportive of viewers obtaining sexual gratification. Therefore, I would argue that her work is not voyeuristic. Arguably her work could be considered exploitative, though the degree to which it is, would depend on how conscious the group were of what Lee was trying to achieve. It would appear on the surface, that Lee was trying to expose the ‘fraudulent’ nature of representations of character in a photograph, and therefore it less important to show the representation of the group, and more demonstrate that she can blend in regardless.
Would you agree with Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
I might agree to it, but I am sure that my wife would.
Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist.
‘Seven Years was made between 2001 and 2004 and was the first time I used myself as the subject. When I began the work, it was not my intention to put myself in front of the camera—it came about through process of elimination. I had tried using my four siblings to recreate moments from our childhood using the tropes of the traditional family album; my aim was to talk about things like family relations and the roles that parents impose on their children. Over time, I discovered that the best model was my sister, as she could hold a pose without questioning the character’s motivation. We worked as a pair, moving between genders and generations, blurring the line between fact and fiction. In more recent projects, I am the only person in front of (and behind) the lens…The family album presents an idealized version of family life that often belies the truth. Everyone has a special face they wear for the camera. When we pause and pose for a snap, we usually smile—but the unconscious often leaks out into the body, bypassing the face, which stands firm behind its mask. The instantaneous nature of photography isolates the small gestures that often go unnoticed in real life because they are too minute and commonplace to be discerned…The photographs in “Seven Years” are the awkward pictures: fingers in front of the lens, eyes shut, unattractive body language. Pictures that would have normally ended up down the back of the sofa or burned so that they would never see the light of day.’ https://www.lensculture.com/articles/trish-morrissey-seven-years [accessed 26/08/2019].
In The Failed Realist, Morrissey creates a set of head shots of her with different forms of face painting. The title of each image provides the only clue to the meaning of the image.
Recreate a childhood memory in a photograph. Think carefully about the memory you choose and how you’ll recreate it. You’re free to approach this task in any way you wish.
I have two vivid childhood memories that stand out. The first is a memory of the living room of my grandparents. In it is an upright piano covered in framed pictures of their children and grandchildren. My Grandad is playing the piano. I have wondered how I could recreate this and have come up with no satisfactory answer for this exercise. He has passed away; the house is sold, and I live far away. But it would be interesting to recreate. My other memory is that of me as a child wandering through the countryside around the cottage we lived in. I am probably about nine or ten. I was left alone for long periods of time and the only thing of interest to me was exploring. This is the memory I have recreated as an adult.
I could have used a child model; though that would have been quite difficult to achieve, and not without issue. Using myself in this way can be interpreted in two ways; I represent me as a child or I reminisce about my time as a child. I leave it to the viewer to choose which. I have chosen not to add text, only this explanation.
Project 3 – Self-Absented Portraiture
Sophie Calle (b. 1953) is a French writer and photographer. “Calle’s work is distinguished by its use of arbitrary sets of constraints and evokes the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability and examines identity and intimacy. She is recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her photographic work often includes panels of text of her own writing.” https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sophie-calle-2692 [accessed 17/09/2019].
“Calle grapples with modes of perception and identification by portraying life in all its diversity, handing over all the problems and questions to the viewer – and thereby, closing the loop, back to life itself – to find the answers. Her works are distinguished by the directness of her formal approach, her narrative skill, the conceptual enrichment they undergo over the course of their creation, and their power to draw in the observer with all his or her abilities and experiences. The uncertainty expressed in her works is what makes them so compelling.” http://www.arndtfineart.com/website/artist_937?idx=c [accessed 17/09/2019].
In Take Care of Yourself Calle uses other people to stand in for herself (though this is one of the simpler aspects of the project).
From the course text: “In Take Care of Yourself (2007), Sophie Calle uses a multitude of disciplines to deconstruct and interrogate an email she received from her partner ending their relationship; the eventual installation included film, photography and text. The final words of the letter were ‘Take care of yourself’. Calle asked 107 women to interpret the letter according to their professions: these included a female analyst, a linguist, a rifle shooter, her mother, a storyteller, a ballet dancer, etc. By over-producing the meaning of the letter, so unceremoniously delivered, Calle demeans its power and exhausts it. The letter becomes almost like a joke. In an indirect way this work is about how the artist has dealt with a break-up, and in that sense it’s autobiographical, but in the process it has taken on a life of its own and transcends the genre of self-portraiture into a more universal language.”
In looking at Calle’s Take Care of Yourself it is evident that the trauma of being unceremoniously dumped was a spark for the inspiration for the project, and the cause of the series of conversations that led to the body of work.
What would have happened if Calle had not been dumped by email? Arguably and likely, the project would not have existed and quite possibly the exhibition in Venice would have been a duller affair for it. Calle is clearly a creative force and so she may have come up with a spectacular alternative. But I am left with the question: does the greatest creations come from the greatest trauma?
Should I tap into my own trauma, or is it so far back in time that compared to the fresh raging inferno that one assumes was going on inside Calle, my emotions and resulting creativity, would be more like a dying ember?
Maria Kapajeva moved from Estonia, leaving a job in Economics, to study photography in the UK. Her series A Portrait of an Artist is a series depicting other women who similarly had moved to the UK for the opportunity to carry the careers that they wanted. Kapajeva belongs to this set and is clearly drawing a parallel with her own experiences and outlook, and in a sense these portraits can be considered self-portraits.
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.
“But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too”. (from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, 1916)
I grew up in a culture where women were declared equal to men. This, however, applied to their jobs not to domestic duties, which remained exclusively the obligation of women. They hardly ever got to the top management positions but instead aimed to get happily married and dedicate themselves firstly to the families and then to their jobs. When photography came into my life, I began to realize that the myriad of possibilities and perspectives that it afforded were much more interesting than any dream of ‘marrying a prince’. With my move to the UK, I was lucky to meet women who shared my thoughts, were passionate about their careers, and wanted a freedom of choice in what they would aim in their lives. Most of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment. For me these women are my peers and represent a new generation of impassioned young intellectuals who are not afraid to undertake risks and break the rules. With this ongoing project I am interested to open debates on imagery of women in contemporary society in the context of the historical, cultural bias and the global changes we are each going through.” http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/ [accessed 18/09/2019].
Nigel Shafran (b. 1964) started working as a fashion photographer until he turned to fine art photography in the late 80s. One of Shafran’s pieces of work is Washing Up, produced in 2000 and exhibited in London in 2001.
Some examples from his series follow:
Go to the artist’s website and look at the other images in Shafran’s series. You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.
I visited Nigel Shafran’s site http://nigelshafran.com/ [accessed 21/09/19]. Note that the series are no longer organised by parts, nor are there captions.
Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
Not at all. I wash up when I am home, so I do not assume others washing up is done by a woman.
In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
In many cases, yes. There are narratives that would be difficult for men top tell and similarly women, but I would limit these to a narrow set of topics. Landscapes, general portraits, for example, would acquire limited gender bias. If I look at Francesca Woodman’s work I think the creation is evidently the work of a woman (even if I didn’t know they were self portraits).
What does this series achieve by not including people?
I believe it concentrates focus on the subject, and increases the search for a narrative.
Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?
To a limited degree, yes. But I recognise that I am not particularly enthused by still life generally. Some still life stands out because of the quality of the photography – beautifully lit, pin sharp, beautiful colour rendition and so on – and I can appreciate them as fine art, even if not contemporary. Shafran’s photographs do not have these qualities, possibly purposefully so.
Anna Fox’s (b. 1961) “infamous Cockroach Diary consists of photographs of a diary that she kept at the time her house was infested with cockroaches, as well as pictures of the cockroaches themselves. The combination of text and imagery reveals the friction and frustration of trying to deal with an unpleasant situation. Cockroach Diary became symbolic of the fractured environment, social structures and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships in her life at the time and was Fox’s first use of autobiographical photography that was to become an important motif throughout her career.” [extract from course text]
“Each of these photographers has used photography to speak directly about their lives, yet they haven’t seen the need to include themselves in the pictures. In doing so, they force the image to become symbolic in meaning rather than a depictive representation of a certain person or situation” [extract from course text]