Auto Focus: The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright

Susan Bright’s book (1) should be the ideal starting point for a study of self-portrait and in many ways it is but I find the artists’ work that Bright has selected to be generally rather uninspiring. As one would expect the main introduction and the introductions to the five sub-sections are informative and helpful with Bright providing a thoughtful history of the genre and insightful comments on the selected artists, so my disappointment lies elsewhere.

Christopher Butler tells us that postmodernist theory prefers to use the word “subject” rather than self (2) to draw attention to the ‘subject-ed’ nature of an individual, the fact that we are merely a construct of the ideologically motivated discourses of power  in society. There is a certain common sense logic to the idea that society imposes the discourses, that is the conventions, language, codes and other forms of representation, (8) that we need to adopt if we are to fit in. Butler points out that anyone who has been in a sports team, let alone the type of school I attended 50 years ago, will understand this point and he coins the wonderful phrase “discourses put you in your place”.

Partly as a result of this post-modernist thinking many contemporary artists are searching for answers to the question of how they fit into society and whether they are, in fact, a subject or a self. Bright argues that in literature autobiography is often acknowledged as straying from the truth, or at least the whole truth but that the camera is expected to provide accuracy and therefore self portraits that reveal intimate detail are expected to be authentic. I find it very difficult to accept thus argument, there seems no logical reason to believe that the camera, even when used in what Bright calls “confessional mode”, is any less selective than the written word and there is endless evidence of the camera being used as a way of recording a performance that masquerades as reality.

Nan Goldin

Bright puts forward Nan Goldin as an artist who legitimised the informal visual diary as an art form, this is hard to dispute, but of the 120 pictures in The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (3) only half a dozen are self portraits and of those I would suggest that only the photos of her ectopic pregnancy scar and her partner-inflicted bruises are intimately revealing her “secrets” as opposed to analysing her as part of the group that is the subject of the book. I put this forward because Goldin is one of the few artists in this selection who I respond to and, my argument is that she is not creating a self-portrait series unless we extend the term to include the intimate analysis of group of which she was a part. This highlights the problem with Art criticism; many of the artists we study have such huge portfolios of work that we can select examples to prove, if not any idea, certainly many different and potentially conflicting ideas about their work. For example Bright suggests that Goldin’s photographs of religious icons during her time in Italy serve as symbols of her own mortality; it is impossible to travel around Italy without being confronted by an endless array of religious icons dating from pre-roman to modern times so, are we to assume that if Goldin photographs them they are expressing something about her state of mind whereas, when I photograph them it is only because I like the forms, shapes, colours, shadows or even just because I am a tourist and the icons are there?

There are other photographers whose work in this book did appeal to me but, somewhat depressingly, probably for all the wrong reasons.

Zeneb Sedira

Zeneb Sedira’s Mother, Daughter and I (4) is a lovely series. It is part of larger video installation that explores how the traditional, matriarchal, communication of wisdom and genealogy has broken down in just three generations with Sedira’s mother unable to communicate with her granddaughter through a lack of a common language. This is touching, interesting and supported by gentle and warm photographs.

Sam Taylor-Johnson

Sam Taylor-Johnson (5)  (previously Sam Taylor-Wood) is an interesting artist, originally a sculptor, then photographer, then video and film and now probably best known as the director of Fifty Shades of Grey. Her black and white landscapes are beautiful explorations of pure nature and her deadpan series of the landscape of Wuthering Heights perfectly captures the wild beauty of the Yorkshire Moors but it is her regular use of self portrait that is immediately relevant. Whilst the examples shown in Auto Focus are autobiographic in nature a visit to her larger portfolio suggests that she more often uses self-portrait as part of much wide explorations into literature, free-falling, constriction and maybe even bondage. Her work is imaginative, sometimes playful and funny, highly creative and with multiple layers of meaning but it never feels self obsessed.

Arno Rafael Minkkinen

Arno Rafael Minkkinen (6) photographs himself in the landscape and as part of the landscape in a way that is immediately reminiscent of Bill Brandt’s nudes. In the same way that Brandt explored making the nude body reflect or echo the natural shapes of the landscape Minkkinen becomes a rock in a lake, a tree trunk, an architectural feature or a river. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design (Francesca Woodman’s alma mater) and is currently the the Professor of Art at the University of Massachusetts. His photographs would be impressive as landscapes but the inclusion of parts of his naked body make them spiritual studies of how the body and nature connect in a primal, and often surreal way. Minkkinen sees the body as the entry point to humanity and whilst he describes his work as “nude self portraits” (7) one senses that he is exploring far more subjects than his own personality and form.


Beyond these four artists I find much of the rest of the work in this book either photographically uninteresting or over self indulgent and contrived, or all three of the above. As a collection it feels, in large parts, like a graduation exhibition; reasonably good photographs that explore fairly obvious subjects, with little of it standing out as exceptional. I totally accept that this reflects my own limitations and lack of appreciation for contemporary conceptual photography but I was hoping for far more inspiration from this book than I found.



(1) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson

(2) Butler, Christopher (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(3) Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballard of Sexual dependency. 2012 re-Issue edition. New York: Aperture


(4) Sedira, Zineb (2003) Mother, Daughter and I (accessed at the Artist’s website 3.5.15) –

(5) Taylor-Johnson, Sam. Artist’s Website (accessed at Sam Taylor-Johnson 3.5.15) –

(6) Minkkinen, Arno Rafael. Artist’s Website (accessed at Arno Rafael Minkkenen 3.5.15) –

(7) Adams, William Lee ( 2011) The Body Beautiful: Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s Self Portraits (accessed at Time 3.5.15) –

(8) Goldberg, Michael. Discourse (accessed at University of Washington 29.4.15) –

This entry was posted in 1 - Autobiographical Self-Portraiture, 2 - Masquerades, 3 - Self-Absented Portraiture, Books & Exhibitions, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Auto Focus: The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright

  1. Catherine says:

    You give some good argument and contradictions here (liked the one about the religious icons). Your analysis has lead me to think that maybe I won’t acquire this book even from the library. Ther’s so much to read!

  2. Thank you but be careful not to rely on my opinion. It is just isn’t the type of photography that captures my imagination. Probably a failing on my part rather than Ms. Bright.

  3. Carol Street says:

    Nice honest review Steve. I found this book useful in places but like you I struggled to find any great influence here, although this is not the fault of the book, more my dislike of self-portraiture.
    Catherine; for me this is a library book for a quick flick through – some of the photographers mentioned in the course notes are included which I found helpful in providing an introduction to their work.

  4. I think Carol is right, a library rather than an owning book.

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