AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SELF-PORTRAITURE

EXERCISE  – AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SELF-PORTRAITURE

Project 1 of Part 3 (Putting Yourself in the Picture) is entitled Autobiographical Self-Portraiture and the related Exercise asks me to reflect on the pieces of work discussed in the project and to do some further research of my own.  The artists featured in the work book text are Francesca Woodman, Elina Brotherus and Gillian Wearing.  The Exercise suggests that I explore the following questions : –

  1. How do these images make me feel?
  2. Do you think there is an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focussing on your own identity in this way?
  3. What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
  4. Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
  5. Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?

It is interesting to me that all three artists featured are female.  Inevitably I am going to respond to them from my position as a man so I have no idea how that response will tally with the intentions of the artists whatever they might have been.   

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1. HOW DO THESE IMAGES MAKE ME FEEL?

Francesca Woodman

francesca-3

Copyright Francesca Woodman

Woodman’s work is almost entirely devoted to self portraits albeit of an unconventional kind and always captured in black and white.  Often naked or scantily clad and often located in a decrepit small room environment with peeling wall paper and flaking paint or bare concrete walls with nothing in the shots to soften the stark impact, Woodman photographs herself partly hidden or blurred so that she is only partially present.  Only rarely does she include another person in the image. Woodman’s images have different impacts on me dependant on their content and treatment, but the overarching feelings that I have are of being an intruder or a voyeur, and of a sense of discomfort and alienation.  Whilst, as a man, I am naturally attracted to the images of partial or total nakedness and feel some sexual tension as a result, this visceral feeling is offset and almost negated by the sense of distance and personal angst that I get from them.   The depiction of full or partial nakedness in many of the images is clearly not intended to be provocative in a sexual way, but to depict deeper, darker and highly personal emotions, in particular I believe a sense of vulnerability. Maybe indeed it is a metaphor for a feeling of being without any protection against the world and any means of preventing the world from seeing her for what she is.  (*1)

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979

Copyright Francesca Woodman

The study text suggests that in her work she ‘explored issues of gender representation and the use of the female body’.  I do not get this sense from her work.  Instead I get that she is exploring her own personal feelings and beliefs, especially a sense of isolation and desire to hide from the world, to meld into it, to become invisible. Her choice of depressing and crumbling interiors with no sense of warmth or hope implies that this is a reflection of her inner feelings and state of mind, and the fact that she chooses to depict herself melding into this environment through blurring and/or draping herself in the elements of the scene reinforces that view.  Even in those images which are not shot indoors there is a sense that she is trying to blend into the scene or to warp reality of herself in some way through mirrors or some other artifice.  I do not get from her images that she is seeking to represent a wider view of what it is to be a woman or that the work is meant to speak of a wider reality.  For me it is a very personal exploration and self-expression of her own world and what it feels like.  I find the full ambit of her work very confusing and disturbing as the range of images are like a kaleidoscope giving a twist to ones perception and understanding with each fresh scene.  Whilst it came as no surprise to me to learn that she tragically killed herself at the age of 22, I was, and remain, very impressed by the maturity and invention that she brought to her work even if I don’t understand much of it.  (*2)

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Copyright Francesca Woodman

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Elina Brotherus

The work of Elina Brotherus is similarly primarily direct or indirect self portraiture, and, as with Woodman, the artist appears naked or semi-naked in a number of the images. Unlike Woodman, Brotherus makes no attempt to hide her nakedness or merge into her background, instead appearing to actively display her body, often full frontal with no sense of awkwardness or embarrassment.  Brotherus’s images, in contrast to those of Woodman, are in stark high definition colour and often clearly show displays of raw emotion.

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Copyright Elina Brotherus   From her series ‘Model Studies 2002 – 2008’

Brotherus’s series ‘Annunciation‘ depicts, through self-portraiture and metaphor, her experiences and emotions  during failed attempts to get pregnant via treatment over a 5 year period. The images in this series are emotionally raw and revealing.  However, I found it more difficult to engage with much of Brotherus’ other series of work, the purposes of which largely eluded me despite reading descriptive texts and watching videos of her talking about her work (e.g. https://vimeo.com/58005699). The artist’s declared interest and questions which gave rise to the various series did not speak to me and appeared to me to be superficial and irrelevant.  What I do get from Brotherus’s work is a very strong sense of loneliness, sadness and introspection.  It appears to me that she is using her camera and the resulting images as a means of saying to the world “Here I am.  Notice me!  I exist and am struggling.”  It seemed to me significant that a number of the images included the shutter release cable very obviously leading from her foot towards the viewer which seemed to suggest that she wanted to make it clear that she was the one taking the photograph and that she was in control of the process. (*3)

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Copyright Elina Brotherus   From her series ‘Annunciation  2009 – 2013’

I have tried to understand my very different response to the work of these two artists and, after reflection, I think it has something to do with the style of the images and their settings.  Brotherus’s HD images in colour leave little or nothing to the imagination and the fact that they are set in familiar, contemporary settings adds no sense of mystery to fire my imagination as I find the settings mundane and uninspiring.  What you see is what you get, and if the artist’s intention or purpose in taking the images does not chime with the viewer, then there is no connection except to question if there is anything else to find that is personal. For me, there is not and the only question that hangs in the air is “Why?”.  Woodman’s work on the other hand is full of mystery and suspense and does not show all its content immediately.  

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Copyright Elina Brotherus   From her series ‘Les Femmes de La Maison Carre  2015’

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Gillian Wearing

maureen-paley-gillian-wearing-artwork-self-portrait-as-my-father-brian-wearing-2003

Copyright Gillian Wearing. From ‘Album’ 2003    Self Portrait as my Father Brian Wearing

Turner Prize winning artist Gillian Wearing is clearly deeply interested in the human psyche and uses a range of elaborate techniques and styles including still and video photography to explore the subject. Whereas  a considerable proportion of her work could be referred to as portraiture, there is not a lot dedicated to self-portraiture. An exception is her series ‘Album‘ in which she wears masks and clothing to take on the appearance of others as depicted in her family album and thereby seeks to question her role in her family history.  Whereas this produces vaguely interesting and rather disquieting images and were clearly painstakingly and meticulously created, they leave me rather unmoved and unengaged, and I was more interested in how the effects were created than in any questions they might raise.  Indeed, for me the concept is flawed as it is the other family members, particularly our parents and grandparents but also other acquaintances and relatives, that in some ways both genetically and experientially fashion us and ‘speak’ through us. For me, therefore, it would make more sense if the members of the artist’s family were behind masks depicting the artist with the artist wearing the clothes of the family member.  (*4)

maureen-paley-gillian-wearing-artwork-signs-that-say-what-you-want-them-to-say-1992-3-1

Copyright Gillian Wearing.  “I’m Desperate” from the series ‘Signs that say …….’

Of much greater interest to me is the series  ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say which comprises images of strangers that she approached in the street and asked to write something of importance to them at the time on a placard which they held up for the camera. This was a fascinating and revealing insight into the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people that one would not have guessed at from their appearance. (*5)

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2.  DO I THINK THERE IS AN ELEMENT OF NARCISSISM OR SELF-INDULGENCE IN FOCUSSING ON ONE’S OWN IDENTITY IN THIS WAY?

Yes, undoubtedly there is both narcissism and self indulgence involved in any self-portraiture. It might well be that the artist is using himself / herself as a tool to put over some concept or deeper exploration of a subject but the fact that they are using themselves in this way strongly suggests that they want others to associate the image directly with themselves.  This is particularly true when the subject is an issue personal to the artist.

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3.  WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BROTHERUS’S NAKEDNESS?

I believe that the significance of her nakedness depends on the purpose that she has for the particular series of images.  In the seriesAnnunciation‘ in which she portrays her unsuccessful struggle to have a child I believe that the nakedness is used to depict the fact that her struggles are leaving her emotionally exposed and unprotected.  The nakedness says to the viewer that the ongoing situation has stripped her of all that she is and tries to hold onto and this is what it is like to go through this experience.  She uses nakedness in a different way in her series ‘Model Study‘ where she almost seems to invite the voyeuristic gaze of an audience whilst also suggesting in many of the images that she, as the model, is also staring back at the audience and thereby playing an active as well as a passive role in the scenario.

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4.  CAN SUCH IMAGES WORK FOR AN OUTSIDER WITHOUT ACCOMPANYING TEXT?

In short, sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.  It will depend very much on the images, the theme and the mindset of the viewer.  Where images are overtly metaphorical in their style and content, the viewer is encouraged to let go of any preconceptions they might have or of any demands on the image to produce its meaning but instead to put their own interpretation on it.  Some viewers will feel comfortable with this approach whereas others will feel disconcerted or let down that they are unable to be clear about the artist’s intentions and meanings.  Even where the image is apparently unambiguous and not obviously metaphorical, without accompanying explanatory text doubt is still often left as to the artist’s aims and meaning.  If the viewer is practised and informed in the skills of ‘reading’ photographic artworks, he / she may be less reliant on explanatory texts to derive sufficient meaning for their needs, despite the fact that their interpretation might be at odds with the intentions of the artist.  Some viewers will be less interested in what drove the artist to create the image and more interested in their own ‘take’ on it, whereas for others the artist’s motives may be the over-riding concern.

The inclusion of an explanatory text may help or hinder in the process of a viewer’s appreciation of a piece of work.  For those looking for the artist’s motives and thought processes that led to the creation of the piece, text might provide the key to unlocking its meaning and enhancing appreciation and understanding.  If, however, the viewer is at odds with the artist’s motives and mindset, or indeed if the text is so convoluted and / or opaque in its description as is often the case, it might have the opposite effect and turn the viewer off the work completely.  

I have experienced both extremes.  Whereas I am always happier when an accompanying text is available as it is very important to me to understand what was in the artist’s mind and what the work means to them, I have often been disappointed and even felt alienated and angered on reading the text.  Happily, I have also experienced the opposite and felt more engaged and empathic with some work after discovering the background to its creation.  The experience of an ‘aha’ moment is very rewarding.  There is a middle ground as well.  Even if the descriptive text does not bring me closer to the artist and the work, provided I have not experienced alienation and anger I am still able to revisit the work and look for my own response and reading in it, irrespective of the artist’s purpose, which can sometimes produce fruit.  

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5.  DO I THINK THAT ANY OF THESE ARTISTS ARE ALSO ADDRESSING WIDER ISSUES BEYOND THE PURELY PERSONAL?

Inevitably, if considered for sufficient time with an open mind, any photograph will address wider issues, however relevant those issues might be to the viewer personally or to the wider world. A photograph of a bee on a flower if considered with an open mind will speak of the complexity of the relationship between the bee and the flower and the evolutionary processes that have formed them over millions of years and that have produced what is depicted.  Even a photograph of an empty field without apparent interest or attention to composition will ask many questions both about the status of contemporary photographic art and also about why the field is empty, what it is used for, whether it has any environmental benefits or disbenefits, what it says about agriculture today, etc.  Of course, none of this might have been in the mind of the creator of the image.  The bee image might well have been the result of the photographer just thinking it was an attractive subject, or they were setting themselves a challenge to see if they could capture the moment, or maybe they were just testing out a new lens.  The creator of the field image might have had something entirely metaphoric in mind and the fact that it was an empty space was important rather than its being a field.  Or maybe they were just trying to create something with as little interest as possible to make a point.

Yes – these three artists are addressing wider issues in their work, whether it be family relationships, the pain of childlessness, the pain of depression or the commonality of human emotions and feelings.  The success or otherwise of the revelation of these wider themes and issues to their audience will depend on the sensitivity towards them of the viewer and on their mindset and predilections at the time.  One observer might get a powerful response to a set of images that leaves another completely cold and unengaged. The portraits and self portraits of homo-erotic and S&M subjects produced by Robert Mapplethorpe might do a lot to inform the wider world of this widely present and little known sub-culture whilst they might also repel and distance some of those who are not a part of it.  (*6)  The sometimes disturbing and always revealing portraits of her children in the series ‘Immediate Family‘ by the American artist Sally Mann certainly open up wider issues some of which might be uncomfortable to some viewers and cause them to reject them, whilst others might be captivated by their strength and appeal.  (*7)

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In summary, I believe that any photographer who takes self portraits, i.e. who includes themselves in an image, is, to a greater or lesser extent, displaying an element of narcissism and /or self indulgence in that it is important to them to be seen in the image and for the wider audience to be drawn into their world.  If the artist’s purpose is to use themselves to portray a larger, universal truth or message then the element of narcissism / self-indulgence will be reduced.  If, however, the work that they are making is purely of an autobiographical or a personal nature, they are making the assumption, or living in the hope that, the wider world will have an interest in what they are portraying and will be prepared to spend time on its contemplation.  If the audience can connect and empathise with the art this might work, but if not then it risks leaving the artist exposed as being purely self indulgent.  Self portraiture through images is not something that I would wish to practice as the idea of it leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.  Self portraiture through writing does not have the same fears for me although I am still reluctant to consider that anyone would be interested enough to spend time on reading it.  

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REFERENCES

(*1)   http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512

(*2)   http://www.famousphotographers.net/francesca-woodman

(*3)    http://www.elinabrotherus.com

(*4)    http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing?image=1

(*5)   http://www.artnet.com/artists/gillian-wearing/2 

(*6)    http://www.mapplethorpe.org

 (*7)   http://sallymann.com/selected-works

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