recommended reading: on self-portraits

ode to tamil

ode to tamil (self-portrait) by julia caron

over the years, i’ve made it quite clear i have a particular fondness for self portraits. initially, i was drawn to many images i’d come across in art books, visual arts classes, and museums, without even realizing my favourites were, more often than not, self portraits. francesca woodman, frida kahlo, and cindy sherman come to mind as artists that made a huge mark on my life, my aesthetics, and my own (quite limited) photography. it was only over time and personal curiosity that i came to learn they were all self-portraits. cindy sherman’s untitled series, woodman’s ghostly incarnations, and frida kahlo’s powerful paintings are all reflections and representations of themselves… or at least, of a certain aspect of themselves.

a self-portrait taken by eve arnold in the 1950s

Eve Arnold, Self-Portrait in a Distorted Mirror, 42nd Street, New York, 1950.

for some reason over the past week, i’ve come across many a link which has forced me to revisit and remember what it is i truly love about self-portraits. eve arnold, an influential photographer, passed away last week. while most people quickly started circulating her portraits of marilyn monroe, i took a moment to revisit her work. it is startlingly curious to see which photographs we remember her for, and why. i was surprised to see how beautiful this “Self-Portrait in a Distorted Mirror, 42nd street, New York” was, which i’d never come across before. when we google image search her name, marilyn monroe’s face comes up before hers. how sad.

to top it off, i’ve also come across two fantastic articles on self-portraits. let’s start with wayne bremser’s reflections on the most popular photographs of 2011. it quickly shifts gears from a “best of” type list into a thoughtful reflection on fame, portraits, and consent. the contrast of a famous celebrity’s leaked nude self-portrait contrasted with a relative unknown woman’s posthumous self-portraits makes this point quite clear. this is the line that really struck me:

Vivian Maier was the least famous person in the world, the self-portrait was the only way to document her own existence; nobody else was going to do it for her.

there’s something brutally honest about that statement; for those of you in the known about vivian maier, you’ll known she’s the “unknown woman” whose life and photography came to light only after her death. the spotlight shone brightly on her work in 2011, so it is fitting that her images are part of the most important and memorable of the last year, even though most were taken many decades earlier. i strongly recommend reading the article in its entireity, as i think bremser has touched on something that most other photography “best of 2011″ lists missed altogether in their pandering to the status quo and propaganda machines.

vivian maier - self-portrait, 1960

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1960

a day after coming across that article, i found this one while trying to find proper credit on tumblr for this image. Mirrors, Masks and Spaces: Self-portraits by Women Photographers in the twenties and thirties by Herbert Molderings & Barbara Mülhens-Molderings totally made my saturday. i printed it out and poured over it while drinking an afternoon cup of tea… here are some of the passages i underlined:

The woman’s break with her oppressive pre-war image, her new liberties and her new vocational prospects, the shape and scope of which were still extremely unclear, found expression in the multitude of self-portraits taken by female photographers of the 1920s in an attempt at defining and asserting their new identity.

can i get behind that? fuck yeah. there is a lot in this article of the flapper “garçonne” persona of liberation and the direct correlation of the desire to document ones face, ones self. the power of being able to be both creator and subject is something that has infinitely appealed to me over the years, and i am endlessly grateful for the self-timer function on digital cameras for allowing me to explore that. but for someone like myself, born in 1985, to reflect on what it meant for the very first female self-portrait photographers and artists in the 1920s and 30s? wow, how eye opening.

a self-portrait taken by Marianne Breslauer, « Die Fotografin » , 1933

Marianne Breslauer, « Die Fotografin » , 1933

In a self-portrait taken in 1933, undoubtedly the most erotic self-portrait of a woman photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, this Berlin photographer (Marianne Breslauer) poses, with her cable release in her hand, as a young woman obviously skilful at the game of concealing and revealing. She has deliberately opened her fashionable, fur-trimmed housecoat in order to view her beautiful naked body on the ground-glass screen of the camera. As she is standing to one side of the mirror, her face is hidden by her hair, heightening still further the subtle eroticism of this photograph. Her gaze into the viewfinder of the camera, as though refusing to look herself and, by the same token, the imagined viewer in the eye as she performs her exhibitionist act, seems modest and outdated compared with the erotic self-portraits of women photographers today.24 At once narcissistic and voyeuristic, this self-portrait is less an occupational portrait of the kind intended for publication – we know of no publication of this photograph prior to 197925 – than a private study of a young woman photographer using her professional skills to explore, and take delight in, the eroticism of her appearance.

i’m not going to lie, this definitely put me in mind of some of my own attempts (and failures) of playing with that erotic gaze in the self-portrait… the vast majority of which i have chosen not to share with anyone. but it is powerful to think that what seems like such an innocuous, tame image today went unpublished (and perhaps unseen) for over forty years, because it was too scandalous? because it was always intended to be private? in the era of taking photographs with cell phones and instantly sharing them online, tweeting them with instagram, this seems unheard of. but another aspect this put me in mind of were some of the questions i asked when writing about katie west‘s nude self-portraits back in 2010. why are women, especially young women, so overwhelmingly shamed and judged when they choose to share nude photographs of themselves online… even if they are the ones creating those images themselves? contrasting the digital era of self-portraits with the social mores of the 1930s is definitely intriguing, to say the least.

how many of these photographers were mostly taking photos for themselves? how many, like vivian maier, probably never thought they would have an audience of thousands, even millions? reading and reflecting on all of these questions has already been quite fruitful for me… but i still feel like most of my ideas are a bit half-baked. one day, i’d like to get to the point where i can reflect on the role fashion bloggers and “what i wore” outfit documentors play in the evolution of the self-portrait, of the digital camera as a mirror… but i think my brain has got a lot of digesting to do before it can help me articulate what i mean by the political implications of those things. in the meantime, my heart will jump a little bit each time i see a beautiful self-portrait or read an amazing article reflecting on just what self-portraits can mean. i hope you enjoy them as much as i did.

may 2010as always, click the photos for credit and sources.

recommended readings:

navel gazing:

11 Comments

Filed under currently, pop culture, self-portraits

11 responses to “recommended reading: on self-portraits

  1. I’m listing stuff on etsy right now so I’ve just quickly skimmed this but I will definitely be reading a LOT of this. It relates directly to the essay I wrote in first semester (and won a prize for) a few female photographers from the 30sish and their self-portraits, etc. I think I could have done a better job but I guess it wasn’t too bad! Anyway, I can’t wait ’til I have time to read all of this properly.
    -Andi x

    • i think you’ll really like the essays, particularly the mirror masks and spaces one! it’s so good. i think you liked some of the tumblr posts i made yesterday while researching this topic, and you’re definitely one of the handful of internet friends i have you seem to enjoy self-portraits as much as i do. i’m glad i could distract you a bit from other responsibilities :)

  2. Yes! Yes! I love this all. Your tumblr, in fact, led me to look up more Eve Arnold photographs, and I really love the one of Marilyn Monroe, snapped in the mirror, where you can see Arnold as well. This one: http://www.chrisbeetlesfinephotographs.com/gallery/portraits/marilyn-monroe-en-route-bement-chicago-airport-illinois-1955.html

    • ah i’m glad! eve arnold was a very very important photographer and my only hope is that her death leads to more post-humous admiration and appreciation. i hadn’t seen that photo! thanks for sharing it with me.

  3. Great post! I’m excited to read all the links. But for now – have you read this book? It’s been on my wishlist for a long time now and I figure if anyone has read it, you probably would be the person – http://www.amazon.com/Inverted-Odysseys-Claude-Cahun-Sherman/dp/0262681064

    I’m most interested in the bits about Claude Cahun, the Surrealist artist who made tons of androgynous self-portraits.

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