Initial thoughts for assignment 3 were to work with reflections, an area I have previously explored with a modicum of success (here), and there did seem to be the opportunity to take this idea further. I briefly researched reflective self portrait and found several interesting examples from Vivian Maier (here) and a number of other practitioners including Chris Steele-Perkins, Ferdinando Scianna, Lee Friedlander and Florence Henri (here).
This was a useful exercise and helpful in that it allowed me to look at how the reflective self portrait can be used in a number of different ways. Henri explores layered reflections and spacial relationships drawing her still life and studio work into a wider landscape; Friedlander uses shop windows to reflect himself in his chosen environment and as such his work is a factual representation of himself as part of the streets where he made his name; Steele-Perkins does not appear to use the device extensively and when he does there is a sense that his reflection is merely one component in a wider composition that showcases his ability to capture unusual combinations of light, colour and form; Scianna places himself inside his documentary work, the reporter inside the story.
Taking test shots and looking more closely at examples of reflective self portraits began to lead me away from reflections and towards shadows. Reflections are ethereal and transient but for the moment in which they exist they are factual and descriptive, an accurate, even if sometimes distorted, representation of the subject. The complexity in a reflective self portrait often lies in the need to unravel layers of visual information and to spatially categorise the data. The shadow is far more ambiguous, its size and density altered by variables of light and time, its representation modified by the textures upon which it falls and its shape modified by the angle of observation. It is real but illusionary, like a conjuror’s trick it questions the difference between what we think we see as tangible and what we know to be intangible. As a device of self portrait it also enables the photographer to consider identity behind a mask of anonymity.
Like reflections there are many different ways to use the shadow self portrait and a first round of research identified some of these approaches.
Giacomo Brunelli is a contemporary Italian photographer whose Animals (1) series was exhibited widely across Europe. (i) His Self Portrait (1) series, which is comprised entirely of shadows, is potentially influenced by film noir (ii), with dark and highly contrasted prints.
Brunelli’s photographs from his Self Portrait series are interesting at a number of levels. He is imposing his shadow onto the landscape but in doing so blends himself into that landscape. His shadow adopts the textures of the land and his post processing tends to exaggerate this effect so it is often only the shadow that has texture and thereby creating the paradox of giving substance to the ethereal shadow and removing the substance from the natural surfaces. In other examples he uses the landscape to add features to the shadow, such as grass representing hair, and in this way he blends himself into a variety of surfaces. He explains that by projecting his shadow onto a natural landscape he is adding depth and a tactile dimension which gives his shadow its own personality. (4)
Brunelli, like Friedlander, is placing itself into his working environment but his style integrates himself with that environment to such a degree that he becomes part of the landscape he is photographing.
John Vink’s self portrait has a more narrative feel than many of the others I have found. By photographing himself in the doorway of a moving train he appropriates the clichéd image of the American hobo to suggest a journey to and from unknown locations in the context of a bare and uninhabited plain in which the solitary human figure is dwarfed by its surroundings.
The silhouette, as a cut-out black shape and always represented as a profile had a brief period as a recognisable art form having been invented in France in the second half of the 18th century (iii), and becoming popular in America at the turn of the 19th century until being generally superseded by photography (5). In parallel with the fashion of being immortalised as a black paper cut-out the silhouette was being studied under the auspices of physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s character from their outer appearance. (iv)
The idea that a person’s personality can be read from their profile it is not an idea that only appeared in the 18th century, many cultures including the ancient Greeks identified a connection between a person’s shadow and their soul so the self portrait as a silhouette has a particular status in historical and contemporary art.
In the four examples above we can see the “hand of the artist” in the act of creating the image which follows the tradition of van Heemskerk’s St Luke Paining the Virgin’s Portrait (1553), Vigé-Lebrun’s Self Portrait (1790), Renior’s The Pont des Arts (1867), Duchamp’s Shadows of a Readymade (1918) and Picasso’s Silhouette with a Young Girl Crouching (1940) (6) where, in each case, the artist includes a reference, in the form of their own shadow, to the act of creating the artwork.
This approach fundamentally alters the final image from being self biographical or diagnostic to being a discourse on the act of creating the picture.
Autobiographical – In My Landscape
The most common shadow self portraits are where the photographer is adding themselves not just to a landscape but to a landscape to which they are claiming a connection. Ferdinando Scianna uses this device in the same way as he used reflections to place himself in the story (see here) whereas Ansel Adams offers us the photographer at work in one of the places we most often associate with him.
Relationships – We Are Not Alone
The majority of self portraits, whether in photography or other art forms, focus on the artist but some photographers take the idea of photographing themselves in “their” landscape a step further and include other people. By including their “prey” this seems to speak about the street photographer as a hunter, a stalker or even as a voyeur. Friedlander’s contributions to this category show the hunter at the moment of the “kill” whereas Kalvar projects a sinister stalker creeping up on its prey.
Sometimes the photographer just sees his shadow combining with the landscape to create a design, a satisfying play on the relationship between themselves and the world at large. Franck and Kalvar find graphic patterns that please the eye and explore the organic shape’s relationship with the hard lines of the man-made. Zachman and Cartier-Bresson place themselves as small elements in a broader and natural setting.
Transitional – Where Shadow and Reflection Meet
Finally, and I find these studies especially intriguing as I started with reflections, there are a small number of artists who explore the place where reflections and shadows meet, the surface of water. Monet’s self portrait in one of his lily ponds and Stieglitz’s portrait with a friend transform a reflection into a shadow and take us down a completely new road that potentially explores Narcissism, mirrors and the landscape, which traditionally includes sky and land, in a single flat plane.
Ideas Moving Forward
This little exploration has thrown up a number of ideas that could form the basis of further research and assignment 3. Each type of shadow self portrait has something to offer and the main decision is whether to explore a single stream of thought or to touch on different aspects of this device.
Notes on Text
(i) Whilst in no way related to either shadows or self portraits the Animals series is notable and verity much worthy of mention. Brunelli defines his work as “animal focussed street photography” (2) and his technique is to present the camera and lens as near to the animal as possible and, by various means, to provoke a reaction. the result is a series of photographs of animals reacting to the intervention of the photographer. This approach is in itself interesting but it is the combination of these reactions, his preferred use of low light, monochrome prints and his ability to capture unusual shape and form in common place creatures that makes this work stand-out. There is very little wildlife photography in the art world so it is exciting and refreshing to see gallery work that transcends the genre of wildlife.
(ii) The description Film Noir was first used by French film critics in the 1940’s to describe the trend of American drama films such as the Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Double Indemnity (1944) to be dark, downbeat and generally “black”. These films were in stark contrast to Hollywood’s optimistic comedies and musicals from the same era, they reflected a mood of anxiety and pessimism that many had assumed would abate with the end of WWII but that was somehow amplified by the advent of the cold war. According to AMC Film Site the primary moods of film noir contains are melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia.
Interestingly the archetypal femme fatales that so often featured in these films became the subjects of Cindy Sherman’ s Untitled Film Stills which just goes to show how nearly anything can be linked to anything else if you try hard enough.
(iii) Eteinne de Silhouette was the French Minister of Finance whose high levels of taxation were one of a number of factors that led to the French revolution. When not taxing the population he pursued his hobby of creating cut-out profiles that became subsequently known as silhouettes. (5)
(iv) This “science” was popularised in 1776 with the publication of Essays on Physiognomy by Johann Casper Lavater. (6) This book not only provides helpful and practical hints on how to construct a “machine” to facilitate the drawing of silhouettes but explains how, by removing all the distractions of our detailed features the “shade” of a person provides “no greater, more incontrovertible certainty of the truth of its object”. Shadow analysis was not universally accepted but nearly 60 years later Dr Hugh Welch Diamond was still taking photographers of “lunatics” as a diagnostic tool (7).
(6) Stoichita, Victor I. (1997) A Short History of the Shadow. London:reaction Books
(7) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.
(1) Brunelli, Giacomo (2008) the Animals (accessed at the Artist’s website 18.5.15) – http://www.giacomobrunelli.com/works.php
(2) Brunelli, Giacomo (2008) The Animals (accessed at Lens Culture 18.5.15) – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/giacomo-brunelli-the-animals
(3) Dirks, Tim Film Noir (accessed at AMC Film Site 19.5.15) – http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html
(4) Brunelli, Giacomo (2011) The Self and the Shadow: Photographic Self-Portraits (accessed at Lens Culture 10.5.15) – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/giacomo-brunelli-the-self-and-the-shadow-photographic-self-portraits#slide-1
(5) Rice, Clay. Silhouette Art Form (accessed at Rice Galleries 19.5.15) – http://ricegalleries.com/silhouetteartform.html