In Autofocus Susan Bright (7) offers a selection of self portraits by contemporary artists. Overall this collection didn’t capture my imagination, leaving me uninspired and somewhat confused. Having become excited by the idea of approaching a self portrait project, this collection raised far more questions for me than it answered. I have discussed this elsewhere (here) but I needed to embark on an different line of research to rediscover the inspiration that had been fuelled by Maier, Woodman, Sherman, Steel-Perkins and Scianna and to establish the approaches to self portrait that excite me and convert that excitement into inspiration for my own work.
I have selected four photographers who have different approaches to reflective self portrait.
- Florence Henri – uses mirrors as an expression of self knowledge;
- Lee Friedlander – includes himself as part of the street culture he documents;
- Chris Steele-Perkins – appears to use his own image as a compositional device;
- Ferdinando Scianna – provides journalistic context to his self portraits.
These are obviously simplistic summaries and there are similarities as well as differences between these photographers but by looking at these four I am endeavouring to understand how one approach can produce quite different messages.
Firstly I want to look at an artist who repeatedly used reflective self portraits to express ideas about her gender and sexuality and to explore her art form in terms of compositional constructs. Each of her reflective self portraits are clearly planned and executed in an environment over which she has complete control, in effect she is placing herself into still life sets.
Florence Henri is not contemporary, she was born in New York in 1893 but moved to Silesia at the age of two and later to Paris, Munich, Vienna, the Isle of Wight and Rome. Originally a painter she was introduced to photography by László Moholy-Nagy, the avant-garde and surrealist painter and photographer.
Henri experimented extensively with mirrors for still life, portraits and self portraits, Moholy-Nagy described this work as ‘Reflections and spatial relationships, overlapping and penetrations are examined from a new perspectival angle’. (1) Which might translate as an exploration of layered reflections and spacial relationships.
What immediately strikes me is how she uses the mirror to create ambiguous space inside the frame, complex layers that create a constructed environment, neither wholly interior nor exterior but a window through which we see an alternative perspective. By including herself in these spaces Viv Williams (2) suggests that she is using this device as a metaphor for the artist as a public and private person. Herbert and Barbara Molderings (4) interpret her work as having significant “feminist” (i) themes with, for example, the two spheres in fig. 1.3 representing masculinity (ii) and her pose that of a “proud and emancipated women”.
Diana du Pont (3) points out that throughout history the mirror has been an essential tool for artists to create self portraits and it is likely that, as a painter, Henri has introduced mirrors into her photographs with this idea in mind. Du Pont suggests that, for Henri, the mirror is a metaphor for self knowledge.
In contrast to Florence Henri most street photographers are intent on capturing the moment, photographing life as it unfolds before them and it seems likely that, at some point, every street photographer past and present has been drawn to refections as a subject and whilst, on most occasions, they select angles to exclude their own reflection there are times when their reflection is an essential part of the composition or even the whole intent.
Friedlander explains “At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing. But as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings.” (5)
Friedlander photographed what he called the “American social landscape” (6) for over 50 years and over that time he created a collection of self portraits (13) which diarise his work in a unique manner. They were not photographed as a series but distilled from his archive late in his career.
The photographs included here are fundamentally different from Woodman, Sherman or Henri’s work and even more different than the images in Bright’s book. There is no sense that Friedlander is communicating anything very specific about himself, they are not artistic in a philosophical sense, even photographically they are often quite casually framed but by dispassionatly including himself in his documentary evidence of American life he shifts himself from observer to being part of the observed, he disarms any idea that he feels superior to his human subjects by joining them. His photographs appear to say, this is the street and I am part of it, this is American culture and I am part of it.
Friedlander along with the other early modern street photographers such as Garry Winogrand can be interpreted as putting themselves above their subjects, exhibiting their superiority by photographing people being human, ordinary, odd; the same arguments that are often laid at Martin Parr’s door. But, by capturing and publishing 400 self portraits Friedlander is showing if he was a stalker, he was also stalking himself; if his work is voyeuristic, he was also self voyeuristic; if he was critically appraising his subjects, he was being self critical at the same time. Friedlander’s style was factual before that became fashionable and he makes no apparent effort to present himself in a positive light, his view of himself is fundamentally impersonal and that is quite a trick.
Chris Steele-Perkins (10) was born in Burma to an English father and a Burmese mother and was brought to England by his father at the age of two. In England, My England (8) he talks of his sense of displacement, of being different. He believes that this feeling has coloured his work which spans forty years and much of the globe. I first became interested in his work when looking at reflections during TAoP noticing that he often captured reflected urban landscapes and when looking at different approaches to narrative (here). Amongst his Magnum collection (9) there are also a small number of reflective self portraits which are equally interesting.
Primarily Steele-Perkins is a professional reportage photographer but his work extends beyond current events. Teds, and England, My England are documentary collections and Tokyo Love Hello might be classified as documentary street photography. Steel-Perkins strikes me as a very English photographer often displaying the same wry wit and humour we see in Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr’s work .
As I found no evidence that Steel-Perkins uses reflective self portraits extensively I suspect that he has been attracted to a particular combination of light, colour and the complex layers they form and has added himself to the composition to give the photograph a focal point rather than a subject.
Ferdinando Scianna is a Sicilian photojournalist who, like Steele-Peerkins, is a member of Magnum and who has worked on assignments across much of Europe, Africa and the Americas. I became interested in Scianna after acquiring a second-hand copy of to sleep, perchance to dream (11) which is a collection that spans twenty years of his photographs of people and animals sleeping.
Using the evidence of his style in to sleep, perchance to dream and the many self reflective portraits I was able to find on his Magnum page (12) I see Scianna’s approach as being in sharp contrast to Friedlander, Henri and Steel-Perkins. Even when focused on a specific subject, as he always is in to sleep, he tends to include a significant amount of context, often a landscape that has been selected with a photojournalist’s eyes. His published series of sleep photographs and my selection of his reflective self portraits appear to have been mostly taken whilst working on assignments so we can assume that his mind is on his overall subject so he is placing these shots, shots that obviously intrigue him, into that context.
If Friedlander is not trying to tell us anything about himself, just showing that he is part of the street where he works and Steele-Perkins is including himself as a photographic device then Scianna is putting himself into his reportage, he is placing himself into the context of his work, showing us the reporter in the background of the story.
Notes on Text
(i) I am using the word “feminist” as a way of explaining the Moldering’s modern view of Henri’s work without knowing whether she was a feminist in the way that we would understand that word today. However, according to Oxford English Dictionary, the word feminism was used as early as 1895 to mean the “advocacy of the claims and rights of women” so her interpretation and ours might not be so very different.
(ii) According to the Molderings (4) Florence Henri was bisexual and “loved having her photograph taken at exhibition previews in trousers and a waiter’s waistcoat”. One would need to study attitudes to homosexuality in the 1920’s to understand the symbolism in Henri’s work but spheres do regularly appear in her still lives and her hair cut and poses suggest the adoption of a masculine persona.
(2) Williams, Viv. (2012) When a Photograph Really Works. London: Barron’s
(7) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson
(8) Steele-Perkins, Chris ( 2009) England, My England. Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria Press
(11) Scianna, Ferdinando ( 1997) to sleep, perchance to dream. London: Phaidon
(1) Henri, Florence (1893 – 1982) Florence Henri (accessed at Bauhaus 30.4.15) – http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/personen/florence-henri
(3) du Pont, Diana C. (1990) The Mirror and Self-Identity (accessed at Jeu De Paume 30.4.15) – http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2015/03/florence-henri-the-mirror-and-self-identity/
(4) Molderings, Herbert and Mulhens-Molderings, Barbara (2011) Mirrors, Marks and Spaces. Self-Portraits by Women Photographers in the Twenties and Thirties. (accessed at Jeu De Paume 1.5.15) – http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2011/06/molderings/
(5) Friedlander, Lee ASX Channel: Lee Friedlander (accessed at American Suburbx 1.5.15) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/series-2/l/lee-friedlander-self-portrait
(6) O’Hagen, Sean (2012) In The Picture: Self Portraits 1958 -2011 by Lee Friedlander (accessed at The Guardian 1.5.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/22/lee-friedlander-in-picture-review
(9) Steele-Perkins, Chris – Magnum Portfolio (accessed at Magnum Photos 2.5.15) – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Z6VT
(10) Steele-Perkins, Chris – Practitioner’s website (accessed at Chris Steele Perkins 2.5.15) – http://www.chrissteeleperkins.com
(12) Scianna, Ferdinando – Magnum Photos (accessed at Magnum Photos 3.5.15) http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZX4A
(13) Friedlander, Lee. Self Portraits (accessed at Fraenkel Gallery 1.5.15) – https://fraenkelgallery.com/portfolios/1960s-self-portraits
Henri, Florence (1893 – 1982) Selbstportrait (accessed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art 30.4.15) – http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/265385?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=New+York+City&what=Gelatin+silver+prints&who=Florence+Henri&pos=2