Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984 © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
What does a self-portrait tell us about the artist? Susan Bright, the author of Auto Focus, a major new book on the subject, considers the use of diaries, memoirs and albums to create visual autobiographies that aim to convey the lives that lie behind the surface
Author: Susan Bright
25 Jan 2011 Tags: Portrait
The long-established genre of self-portraiture is irresistible for most artists. They may not do it regularly, but they have all done so at one point. We all have – whether we are a photographer or not. The urge to photograph oneself is something of a compulsion. It’s easy now: just turn the camera and shoot. And what is more fascinating or puzzling than a picture of yourself? But what does it actually say about you? How can it be anything more than a mere meaningless reproduction of the real thing?
The most common understanding of self-portraiture is that it reveals something of your inner feelings or personality. This has been much debated in terms of post-modernist theory, but I would argue that it is still the most common understanding – especially the portraiture that deals with autobiographical elements. When we read an autobiography, we want information about that person that we cannot otherwise glean from knowing them or living with them as a personality or celebrity. We need more. We put the same expectations on a photographic self-portrait, but with even higher demands.
When reading an autobiography, we may expect some embellishment for effect or for omissions to take place. But with a photographic self-portrait, edits to exclude elements can be seen as a lack of commitment, and embellishments as narcissistic. People still want photography, and autobiographical self-portraits in particular, to deliver some kind of truth.
Nan Goldin (perhaps one of the best-known artists for producing autobiographical self-portraits, most evidently with her famous image, Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, (shown above) in a lecture at Tate Modern in 2008, asked the audience if they still believed a photograph could tell the truth. Only two people in an audience of more than 100 raised their hands. This made her despair of photography and its percieved integrity. Now this is a thorny issue, and perhaps not one to battle out here, but it’s worth mentioning as diaristic or autobiographical approaches to self-portraiture are not only immensely popular (and increasingly common due to the ease of uploading images onto the web), but also because notions of what is public and what is private is very much a relevant issue across all walks of life nowadays.
Published diaries, especially written ones, and political memoirs in particular, are written to be public not private. Diaristic works by artists and photographers such as Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinnley, Corinne Day, Larry Clark and Araki, to name a few better-known practitioners, may reveal private moments, but are always taken with the intention of being put out into the world. In terms of self-portraiture, it’s interesting to think about how different people approach a visual diary and what effect it has on its reading.
Super Snacks, 2000-2003, by Anna Fox is shot in a style we are now accustomed to calling diaristic, by which I mean candid, raw, dynamic – the kind executed by the artists I’ve just mentioned. The individual pictures may not be “great” in terms of traditional photographic standards of composition and form, but together they form a story of an intimate part of Fox’s life. They show her drinking, smoking and snacking, and the camera was used as a cathartic tool to perhaps stop her over-indulging. The effect was actually not the one she had intended as the photographs have a melancholic humour about them, and for Fox they showed her that self-portraiture can highlight how self-obsessed a person can become. So where they might not have stopped her snacking and drinking, they did make her lighten up about it.
A diarist approach or, more accurately, style is also interesting to consider with the work of Patrick Tsai and Madi Ju. The young couple met on Flickr and through a mutual appreciation of each other’s work (and mutual attraction to one another’s portraits, it is assumed), they got together and formed My Little Dead Dick. This collaboration was a visual diary of their relationship, their travels together and their break-up. It’s interesting to consider, as although they shot in a diaristic style and posted pictures on the web to Flickr and their own blog, it is subtly different. Putting editing to one side, the pictures have a more careful composition to the fast-shot digital snaps found on similar photo-sharing sites and, in fact, both Ju and Tsai are skilled photographers and shot on film. They were actually re-creating a diarist style, rather than instinctively using one. As a result, the photographs are knowing, sometimes set up and mediated to tell a story. No less telling or truthful than Fox’s work, it was just a different way of “writing” a diary.
The web is also a fantastic outlet for Canadian photographer Jeff Harris, who uses the ease of getting his pictures out there in a slightly more obsessional style. Every day he commits to putting up a self-portrait of himself on his website. That’s not so unusual, but Harris started this project more than 10 years ago, before photo-sharing sites were established, and he was ahead of the curve in this kind of obsessive documentation on the web. Even more ahead of the curve (although his materials and presentation are distinctly old school) is the work of Ken O’Hara who, since the 1970s, has been creating exquisite artists’ books titled 365 for each day of the year that he takes a photograph. If, one day, he does not take a photograph, the project will be abandoned.
Shot on black-and-white film and assembled as contact sheets on concertina card, they are a fantastic example of how his approach to photography slices through his influence from post-war Japanese photography magazines such as Provoke and the cool approach of 1970s conceptual art. The very human and intimate scenes the pictures represent provide a strong sense of melancholy and time, and his life can be seen reduced to a pile of tiny books of moments, once fleeting, and now gone.
In comparison to the compulsive need to photograph every day is the more elliptical approaches of artists and photographers such as Airyka Rockefeller, Sam Taylor-Wood and Elina Brotherus, who choose to produce work that has more in common with (to use a literary term again) memoir. Their work ties in more directly with memory, and focuses in on certain events or moments, rather than trying to capture the whole story. Their work tends to blur time and touches on the merging of fact and fiction in the same way that memory does.
Brotherus ties her scenes down to more solid events in earlier work, such as the Wedding and Divorce portraits (1997 and 1998, respectively), but her later work shifts slightly to become an examination of the roles of model and artist, and the questioning of traditional gender roles within this dynamic. Rockefeller’s photography in this regard is interesting to compare with Brotherus’ earlier work, as it doesn’t concentrate on specific events but instead on moments in between activities in places that are temporary for the artist. Rockefeller’s series Between or Before is a peripatetic drift through spaces, which combines memory, autobiography and space into a condensed photographic moment that teeters on the cusp of an activity. Taylor-Wood’s ongoing self-portraits have also shifted from documenting real times in her past (most famously her breast cancer with Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit, 2001) to more ambiguous moments using suspension, Pink and Red, to suggest certain states of mind or emotional instability. Her work is interesting in another sense, because her celebrity status means that we have access to more information about her private life than is normal for any of the other artists and photographers mentioned here.
The album, as opposed to the diary or memoir, is also worth mentioning. Long discussed for its partial storytelling abilities, it has an important place in work that deals with the complexities of autobiography. Ana Casas Broda produced a significant and important body of work in book form in 2000, simply titled Album. It was an enormous body of work modelled on a family album that took 14 years to complete and dealt with intergenerational relationships and memories both fresh and repressed. Her new body of work, Kinderwunsch, Three days after giving birth to Lucio, is equally ambitious and vast, dealing with her desire to have children and her experience of mothering. It takes the photographic album less as a template, but it is infused in the work, as it is still most common to see pictures of children in this format and to associate their growing up as confined to the safety between the pages of a book. Of course, with the web this is changing, and the many pictures parents have of their children are not placed within private albums but pasted onto Facebook or specific baby websites – albeit with privacy settings. Kinderwunsch doesn’t sit comfortably in either mode and the intense and emotional photographs document both moments that would traditionally be photographed for posterity, and those that are not. Her work is dramatic, vigorous and at times her presence with her sons is overpowering as she uses photography to come to terms with her complex and often contradictory feelings of being a mother and the love she feels for them.
It’s important to end on a piece of work that deals with self-portraiture in a confessional, autobiographical way that, like the other photographers here, chooses to reveal something personal, rather than conceal or disguise (as can be seen in other approaches to self-portraiture – most specifically those dealing with masquerade). However, this piece relies on a strong element of fiction in order to do this, and conflates all ideas of autobiography, memoir and diary into something that, in fact, tells us a great deal about inner feelings, even though it is constructed and not based on any kind of factual information processed through a photograph.
American photographer Charles Latham creates a doppelganger, an alter ego, nemesis and imaginary friend in the form of Cyrus. Cyrus appears in his self-portraits as a masked and handcuffed minion. The hand-made gaffer-tape gimp mask that Cyrus adorns and the S&M overtones of their relationship is uncomfortable for the viewer. Issues of power and control seethe through the photographs. These self-portraits were made in order to help Latham investigate personal issues without harming himself, and so in order to do this, he created Cyrus.
Through Cyrus, Latham was able to work through feelings of self-hatred in a controlled manner. For those not familiar with the levels of trust and complexities of submissive and dominant behaviour played out in performances of sexual preference, the photographs are confusing and unsettling, just as Latham’s feeling are to himself. Cyrus is an extraordinary piece of work that does as much to reveal as it does conceal, and shows us that autobiography, in photography just as in literature, is prone to storytelling and confessions, and “truth” can be delivered in oblique and puzzling ways.
Susan Bright is the author of Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography, published this autumn by Thames & Hudson (ISBN: 978-0-500-543894), priced £28.
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