Essay Research: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography

Susan Bright., (2010) Auto Focus the Self-portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Historically the self-portrait has been a representation of emotions, a way of expressing inner feelings, a way of self-analysis and self-contemplation and creates an immortality upon the artist.

“A crucial consideration in any analysis of self-portraiture is its ubiquity.” Which means that self-portraiture is omnipresent and is seen almost everywhere, it has become part of our everyday and has grown along with photo-sharing websites such as Facebook and Instagram. These sites promote photography as an essential part of online communication. However, it needs to be considered whether these type of images are really self-portraits or just pictures people take of themselves. Almost anyone with a camera has the compulsion to turn it on themselves, artist or not. A photographer or artist who has never taken a picture of their self is a rarity.

[note: ask peers if they have taken a self-portrait and why. Maybe email photographers who focus on self-portraiture]

  • “it has been argued that all photographs are self-portraits of sorts as the photographer projects himself or herself into the image. The same argument could be made for any creative output.” pg 12
  • “the self-portrait is often used as a tool for addressing social issues, or as a metaphorical symbol for a universal being” pg 12
  • The self-portrait does not always contain the artist themselves, but something that represents them or something they want to portray (Lee Friedlander use of shadows?)
  • “Claude Cahun proposes that the real self can never be revealed because it is performed – a role rather than a truth” pg 16

The use of mirrors and reflection is a common metaphor within photography. The use of mirrors in self-portraiture can be as a way to see all sides of the self and a way of capturing something more personal, other than just the literal self.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Multipoint Self-portrait (1917), Ilse Bing Self-portrait with Mirrors (1931)

In the early 1970s and 1980s self-portraiture became important for people who were beginning to consider their own positions within a political and creative context. Artists started using the self-portrait as a way of expressing their identities in terms of race, gender and sexuality, as a way of illustrating those who had traditionally been overlooked in the predominately white, middle class, male dominated world of Western art.

Some forms of self-portraiture is autobiographical, capturing parts of their lives. This sort of work can be seen as a form of expressive therapy, and it is common for artists and photographers to document a personal tragedy or difficult time in life. Examples: artist Hannah Villiger (1951-97) fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) used self-portraiture to document their experiences with cancer and hospitalization for heart problems. “the camera acted as a physical and mental barrier that allowed Newton to distance himself from his illness and to deal with it objectively and less emotionally.” Photography can aid us in coping with difficult experiences (similar to art therapy)

The use of the body has been a big part of self-portraiture, including the nude form and the use if the body to question what is human in a critical and political way, and is used as a way of illustrating the human condition of the fear of death and ageing. Since the mid-twentieth century the body is used as a tool to express identity.

Louis Ducos du Hauron (1837-1920) a French inventor, developed an early photography process, and created a series of self-portraits in the late nineteenth century that used rephotographing negatives to comically elongate or compress his face. Contemporary approaches to body alterations tend to question the self, and use technological ways to alter the artists physical body. Artists use their bodies to question what is human.

Quote [1] page 9

Information from: Auto Focus The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography, Susan Bright, Thames & Hudson


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