Whilst looking for inspirational photographers who have used shadow self portraits I came across an interesting statement on the Lens Culture blog (1) regarding the work of Giacomo Brunelli in which the author suggests that the use of the shadow in self portraits is nearly exclusively owned by the photographic medium. This was a surprising comment and posed the question as to why such an obvious device has escaped the attention of artists until the invention of the camera and why it had subsequently become such a popular approach to self portrait. (i)
Both Victor Stoicha (3) and Ernst Gombrich (4) discuss the creation myths associated with Western Art that link the shadow, drawing and sculpture. Early Egyptian and Greek art extensively use the silhouette, an obvious representation of the shadow, so as an object the shadow’s relationship with art is both ancient and varied. However, it is much later that the self portrait shadow enters the scene but when it does its uses are complex and intriguing. This essay endeavours to briefly trace that history and consider how the shadow self portrait has been used historically and how it influences contemporary photography.
The Origins of Art
Pliny the elder, who died at Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius (iii) documented how both painting and sculpture were discovered. In his Natural History he records, what was obviously a well know creation myth: the geographical “origin of painting is uncertain,” yet “all agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow”. (6)
Pliny’s more complete quotation ends with an interesting assertion: “but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single colour and called monochrome”. (a)
Pliny’s story tells of the daughter of a Corinthian potter who, saddened by the impending departure of her lover “to travel a long distance”, traces the outline of his shadow on the wall of her father’s house. Her father, Butades, “pressed clay into the outline and made a relief”, this first sculpture was subsequently stored in a religious shrine. (iv)
Stoicha believes that there may have been some political motivation behind Pliny’s version of this creation myth as it attributes the invention of drawing to the Greeks thereby undermining the Egyptian claim to have perfected it far earlier but he also points out that it places love at the root of all art which is a comforting interpretation. However, Stoicha also suggests that this creation myth is full of complex symbolism that would take far more than the space available here to unravel, but that can be (very superficially) summarised as:
- The act of tracing a shadow turns it into a mnemonic aid, a device that translates information into a more memorable form.
- From the earliest times tracing a person’s shadow created a surrogate of that person.
- The traced shadow is somebody’s image, it resembles and belongs to the departing lover. His shadow will accompany him on his travels, and as such will be ever changing, but the image of his shadow captured on the wall immortalises a moment and makes it last.
- The shadow is captured in a vertical plane, an upright figure or a statua in Greek, signifying that it is meant to last for ever, suggesting immortality, as opposed to a recumbent shadow which is linked to death. (c)
- Stoicha sees the whole act of keeping the lover’s shadow as a symbolic gesture to protect him from risk, as he surmises that his journey may be to war.
- The act of filling the outline with clay and firing it in a kiln, a process that starts with a shadow and ends with a vessel, speaks to the Greek belief that the shadow was a repository of the soul. The potter has created a surrogate body to house the young man’s soul which explains it becoming a cult object in a temple.
This myth has value in helping to establish symbolism that is carried forward in the creative arts up to and including the modern day but is an unlikely explanation of how we learnt to draw. Cave paintings in the Chauvet cave in France are over 32,000 years old and were probably created using skills that had been perfected over a very long period of time using animal skins as canvasses. (7)
The shadow has a close relative in reflection and the transition between reflection and shadow is an idea that I will come back to. (d)
But, it is also at the heart of the story of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, his reflected self portrait. In Ovid’s original text reflection and shadow are, on face value, interchangeable but he uses shadow as a metaphor for that which is obscure or unreal (3) “He loves an unsubstantial hope and thinks that substance which is only shadow” and “That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form”. Narcissus does not fall in love with his shadow but we can assume that, as in Antonio Tempesta’s depiction of the story, that he is casting a shadow which, when reaching the surface of the spring, becomes a reflection. Tempesta avoids showing us the transition, but we know it has occurred.
Stoicha suggests that this was not always well understood and many writers interpret Ovid as not differentiating between reflection and shadow but Stoicha believes that the differences between the two are fundamental both in physical terms, one is a reflection of light and one an absence of light, and in symbolic terms, the shadow is the “other” the reflection is the “same”. In this sense a reflection is an accurate representation of self, a “relationship of identity”, whereas a shadow is a separate object albeit connected to self, a “relationship of otherness”.
This can be translated into very practical terms, if we put fairground mirrors and curved windows aside for the purposes of this argument, we recognise that a mirror truly reflects us, it mimics our form and appearance, whereas our shadow appears to have a life of its own, attached but taller in the evening and shorter at mid-day, fatter near to us and thinner further away, modified not just by light but by the landscape upon which it falls, it is a altered and every changing representation.
The Avoidance of Shadows
To avoid leaping forward from Ovid who died in the 17 AD to the 16th Century, which is when the artist’s shadow appears to enter the frame I will summarise the long shadowless period in between.
To the layman early western art is highly dependent on shadows, outlines and silhouettes are used for an extended period on Egyptian tombs and Greek vases until the 4th century, but the shadow is not extensively used as chiaroscuro, as shading, until much later. Gombrich says that the Greeks were suspicious of such techniques, their word for illusionist painting was skiagraphia, shadow painting (4) and Plato suggests that the stage scene painters were out to deceive their audience by using such techniques. Gombrich suggests that we should look for shadows in early paintings and recognise their rarity value because even Leonardo da Vinci, who extensively studied the effects of shadows, avoided introducing them into his paintings. da Vinci wrote that “Light too conspicuously cut off by its shadows is exceedingly disapproved of by painters” and goes on to instruct artists on how to contrive “a certain amount of mist” so shadows would not clash with the light. (4)
This fear of the shadow as a distraction could be argued to exist to this day in photography, fashion photography for example often uses diffused and even light to avoid the cast shadow. The natural relationship between light and shade which our eyes balance in real life remain challenging to photograph and to depict in two dimensions.
However, in the 15th Century a few artists started to include strong shadows in their work and whilst the floodgates don’t exactly open natural shadows start to become acceptable and then eventually valued.
The Artist’s Shadow enters the Frame
I make no pretence of being even a fledgling art historian so there may be galleries full of early shadow self portraits that Gombrich and Stoicha don’t mention and that I failed to find on-line; their subject was shadows in general so no blame can be laid at their door if they haven’t pointed me in the right direction.
However, the first shadow self portrait that I have found dates from 1553, a painting by Martin van Heemskerk, which might not even be a self portrait but it suits me to believe that the artist, when painting an artist, is in some way being autobiographical. Stoicha, provides a more academic argument, quoting an old adage “every painter paints himself”.
The shadow is clear to see, the artist’s hand holding the brush is captured on the board. If we accept the self portrait argument we are being shown the “hand of the artist”, not as Luke’s hand but as the prominent shadow. Stoicha suggests it is an “allusive signature”. The inclusion of the artist’s shadow hand potentially transforms the meaning of this painting, it becomes, at least in part, a reference back to the artist and a discourse on the act of painting potentially leveraging a “Platonic” concept that the hand represents the “practice” of transferring the “idea” to the chosen medium and the shadow of the hand becomes the “shadow of practice”, or the transitional process of making the idea into reality; Vicente Carducho, a Spanish artist, described his use of the shadow of a brush in 1633 as the transformation of “power” into “action”. The same artist painted his self portrait to include his hand holding a pen and throwing a shadow over the page of a book which Stoicha argues becomes a discourse on “self”, a “living discourse on the status of representation”. (e)
The idea of the shadow of the creative hand is carried forward by several artists including Marie-Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun whose self portrait includes the paradox of her staring out of the painting whilst her hand is busy painting
Vigée- Lebrun uses this same approach in another self portrait in 1800 and many of her portraits include the subject’s shadow but after looking at many of her paintings on-line I found no examples of her subjects being represented with a shadow of their hands. In 1814 she painted the Genius of Alexander which represents an angel painting on, what I assume is, Alexander’s shield yet even here there is no shadow. This leads me to suggest that Vigée-Lebrun was cognoscent of the meaning of including the shadow of her creative hand and understood its symbolism.
At least now we go forward in shorter steps and start to move away, albeit temporarily, from the shadow of the creative hand. In 1867-8 Pierre Auguste Renoir (8) painted the Pont des Arts in Paris. It is a typically beautiful view of the Paris skyline but, in the context of this discussion, the most notable feature is in the foreground where we can see the truncated shadows of several people who are passing across the Pont du Carrousel where the artist has positioned himself.
The foreground shadows are sketchy, simple representations of the passers by and there is no certainty that Renior has included himself among them. However, Charles Baudelaire, a Parisian contemporary of Renoir described modern art as “an allusive magic that contains both the object and the subject, the world outside the artist and the artist himself”. Renior himself talked of his role as an observer was to “relish being incognito”. Stoicha argues that, in Pont des Arts, Renoir is projecting the “transitory and impermanent figure of the observer”. This painting is a landmark in the shadow self portrait and the earliest example that I could find of the artist placing himself into the landscape in which he feels so at home. (f)
Renior recorded “his” Paris, creating a methodology and an asthetic that would be replicated by the street photographers that followed him. He declared “In the streets of Paris I felt at Home” (8), Christopher Riopelle says that “he celebrated anything that added to the animation of Paris”, his pictures capture, not just the landscape of Paris, but its inhabitants, ordinary Parisians taking an evening stroll, dancing, breast feeding a baby on a street corner, walking in the rain. It is not the Paris of the elite but of its ordinary citizens, themes that are picked up by André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Bill Brandt and countless others. This is an important link in the chain connecting the impressionists to the modern photographers and to contemporary street photography.
The Photographer Joins the Game
According to Stoicha the first known shadow self portrait photograph is by Lewis Hine.
It dates from 1908 and features a newsboy on the streets of Indianapolis but the most interesting feature is the shadow of Hine’s camera and tripod and the photographer in the act of capturing the image, the tube from his remote release can be seen quite clearly.
Photography offers something that Renior, van Heemskerk and Vigée-Lebrun could not accomplish; we see the shadow of the creative hand and the external observer as the included subject at the very instant of creating the image, what is now called “the shadow of the gaze”.
Perhaps the Lens Culture article (1) has a point about the shadow self portrait being the province of the photographer as no other still medium can bring “time” into the representation. In Hine’s photograph we have all the previously identified elements of the shadow self portrait but, in addition, we have a sense of “the frozen moment” a thing that only photography can achieve.
This photograph is an example of how the inclusion of shadows adds complex symbolism to an image if only for the reason that it combines the representation of a two dimensional object in a picture that presents a three dimensional image. When the shadow is a minor part of the image it leaves the whole as a three dimensional scene but in Hine’s photograph we have an example where the shadow plays an important role. We know that the unseen observer and his camera are pointed at the subject in the three dimensional world (otherwise the photograph would be of something else) but we also have the shadow of the camera and photographer’s arm as a two dimensional signifier pointing at the subject. As a result it becomes a photograph not of the subject but of the act of photographing the subject.
Alfred Stieglitz, in 1916, captured Shadows on a Lake, where we first see the idea of the surface of water transitioning from a reflective to a projected surface in a photograph. A concept that has already been discussed as being linked Ovid’s Narcissus story.
This appears to be a light hearted shot, a snap shot of Steiglitz and his friend (vi), spontaneous and seemingly casual but we know from Stieglitz’s writings (3) that it was a planned composition taking advantage of the abstract backdrop provided by the lake’s surface.
This photograph weaves together the layers of the reflections, the surface of the lake and the three shadows (vii). The sky is absent but represented by the reflected clouds, the men and a tree are absent but represented by their shadows but, unlike the abstract backdrop, the shadows are precise giving these projections a “likeness” which fulfils the definition of a portrait. (g) In the language of semiotics the shadow is an indexical signifier – the sign of the men, their shadow is produced by them, but the shadow is also iconic in that it only resembles the subject.
These combinations; index and icon, reflection and projection appear in another photograph taken around the same time as Stieglitz’s Shadows on a Lake and despite coming later than Hine it provides the perfect image to transition from paintbrush on canvas to the camera and film. It is by Claude Monet but is not a painting.
This little photograph was taken by Monet around 1920 of his beloved lily ponds at Giverny and provides an exciting shadow self portrait which has many of the same attributes as Stieglitz’s lake.
Karin Sagner-Düchting (9) explains that Monet purchased his house at Giverny in 1890 and then invested much time in resigning both the house and gardens. As early as 1897 a visitor was show 14 views of the water gardens at Monet and from this point until his death in 1926 the motif of these water gardens became the focus of his work, a self confessed “obsession” and a milestone in impressionist art that broke the mould of the traditional landscape in which the horizon and sky are key spacial reference points. (v)
As photographers, there is much we can learn from both Monet and Renoir but in the context of this piece of research I must return to his little photograph. It is impossible not to link this photograph with the shadow of the creative hand idea or with narcissism as discussed earlier . In the bottom left hand corner we can see Monet in a hat, his shadow does not dominate his “landscape of water and reflection” but he is defiantly part of it, either claiming ownership or placing himself inside work. I want to believe that the spikes coming out of his hat are paint brushes which would be even more symbolic and in line with the shadow of the creative hand.
Interestingly he chose his shadow and not his reflection, the rest of the picture contains either the reality of objects or the reflections of the sky and clouds, and only Monet is represented by a shadow. Stoicha interprets this choice as Monet distancing himself from the Narcissus myth, he is not in love with himself or his reflection, but by using his shadow he states his love of symbolism so he is including the “shadow of the gaze” , in Stoicha’s words “a figurative and paradoxical feature of a dual symbol of presence / transition”, he is “plunging himself into the image in order to lose himself in it.” (h)
Before leaving the early 20th century there is one last photograph taken in 1918 that potentially explores the shadow of the creative hand in a paradoxical way.
This image is part of Marcel Duchamp’s extensive exploration of readymades although Stoicha questions whether the photograph was actually taken by Man Ray.
The key component here is barely discernible in such a small reproduction but on the left a little more than a third of the way down from the top there is a hand with its index finger pointing down at 45 degrees. Duchamp’s consistent concept is to create “paintings” without painting, “sculptures” without shaping the object so this photograph of shadows of household items is an example of that thought process. The hand was apparently painted into the set by a graphic designer so instead of using the shadow of the creative hand in an actual representation we have a non-painting comprised only of shadows with a painted hand. So the creative instrument is included but as the only non-shadow in the frame.
And After That
After it’s arrival in photography in the early 20th century the shadow self portrait continues to occasionally appear in both painting and photography until the 1970s when the floodgates begin to open. But before that happens there are two other photographs worth specific mention that coincidentally both date from 1927.
Walker Evans and André Kertész both used the silhouette as a self portrait .
These two photographs are important to include in this abbreviated history because they link modern photography to the history of the shadow in art. Pliny saw the shadow as a “trace imprint” (3) of the person and there was a pseudo-scientific movement called physiognomy that developed in the late 18th century that believed that a person’s character could be interpreted by looking at their silhouette, an idea that harks back to the ancient Greek belief that a man’s soul is contained in his shadow. (ix)
In the art world, and at about the same time, the silhouette became popular. Using black paper street and studio artists would produce a cut outline of their subject. This craze started in France and spread to America and only died out with the invention of the camera.
Whether Evans and Kertész were consciously linking their silhouettes back to any idea that the viewer would be able to read their soul is not known and unlikely as a motive but both these images speak to the subject of the creator, the artist, the observer being placed inside their art. The ultimate connection between the artist and his art.
In an earlier essay I looked at a series of modern and contemporary photographers (here) and attempted to categorise their approaches. These categories are arbitrary and many photographs can be placed in more than one group but I identified seven basic types:
- Merged shadow and landscape – texturising the shadow with the landscape and blending them into a single object.
- Narrative – using the shadow to tell a story.
- Silhouettes – the classic indexical signifier
- Autobiographical – the photographer’s shadow in their place of work
- Relationships – the photographer’s shadow interacting with their subject
- Graphical – pattern and shapes
- Transitional – where shadows and reflections meet.
The examples considered in this essay generally fall into these categories but this phase of research has identified an additional category;
- The shadow of the creative hand.
There is no value in repeating that earlier analysis or to provide further examples, a selection of modern and contemporary images are included in the previous essay (here) but there is one area left to consider.
The Shadow as a Photograph
An obvious idea has been with me throughout my research of shadows; if we consider the landscape as the medium upon which a shadow is represented and recognise that it is created by light or, at any rate, by the absence of light the shadow becomes a photograph.
Christian Boltanski, a multi-media artist who has created many installations using the cast shadows of small objects. Boltanski’s work is complex and not generally pertinent to this enquiry but his views on shadows are interesting. He says that he relates shadows to many things including death but he goes on to point out that there is a connection to photography. “In Greek the word (photography) means writing with light. The shadow is therefore an early photograph.” (10)
Boltanski is intrigued by the ethereal nature of the photograph, at one moment it is present as an object but as soon as the light is obscured the shadow disappears. On days with sunny spells and racing clouds our shadow comes and goes as the light changes but if the shadow confirms our reality it must always be there, even when we cannot see it, only in absolute darkness is our shadow absolutely absent.
By including the photographer’s shadow within a landscape we are emphasising the momentary, transient and impermanent nature of the observer’s presence against a backdrop that represents the permanence of the landscape. The shadow therefore moves beyond being autobiographical, perhaps not even a self portrait and becomes a discourse on the act of taking a photograph.
Summary of Ideas Arising for Assignment 3
(a) If the shadow is the basis for art and, if as Pliny suggests, the next step of its evolution continued to be in what he calls “monochrome” there is a strong historical basis for working in black and white on this project.
(b) The act of tracing a shadow is seen as creating a surrogate of a person so capturing the whole shadow in a permanent way must also create that surrogate. The question becomes whether capturing their actual image is more or less of a replica.
(c) Stoicha explains that there are two very different meanings to the vertical and the horizontal shadow. The horizontal shadow represents death whilst the vertical shadow represents permanence.
(d) When a shadow falls on a reflective surface, for example water, there is a moment when the shadow might become a reflection and visa versa. This was explored in the story of Narcissus and much more recently by both Monet and Stieglitz. The landscape as reflected in water includes the sky but the shadow of the artist is superimposed on the reflection.
(e) The concept of the shadow of the creative hand is intriguing, the symbolism of the mind, the “idea” communicating to the hand, “the practice” and the shadow becoming the transformation of the idea into practice is very powerful and is an idea that appears at several different points on the timeline of shadow self portraits.
(f) Renoir’s idea of showing both the object and the subject, the observer and the scene is one that is carried forward by many photographers and is an obvious basis for shadow self portrait. It represents the presence of the observer whilst keeping them incognito and therefore speaks to the mental state of the street photographer who wishes to be part of the scene but maintains a discrete distance, to be the hunter and the voyeur but to be connected, to be part of the street and thereby defuse the negative connotations of their predatory methods.
(g) To be a portrait or self portrait in the traditional sense we need “likeness” and each of Hine, Stieglitz and Monet’s early shadow self portraits provide that likeness. Their friends would probably recognise their silhouettes as projected on the pavement or water surface. The photographs contain indexical signifiers but are also iconic in that they only resemble the subject. This is an interesting area to explore, the photographer is indexed back to the photographer but it only represents their general characteristics. It is simultaneously connected to the photographer and serves as a iconic sign of the photographer.
(h) If Stoicha is right Monet chose the shadow self portrait rather than his reflection to allow him to be included in his favourite landscape as the shadow of the observer or as the “shadow of the gaze”. This speaks of the transience of the shadow and the presence of the artist.
Notes on Text
(i) This could have been a challenging line of enquiry were it not for two brilliant books that focus on the history of the shadow in art and a third that concentrates more on the shadow as an object. The first of the three is written by the art historian Victor I. Stoicha (2) who is apparently the first art historian to extensively research the shadow in art, a fact he attributes to the dark connotations of the subject and its connections to the soil and death (ii). Stoicha’s book, A Short History of Shadows (3), has been my main source for this essay and I am indebted to his scholarship and approachable writing style. The second book, Ernst Gombrich’s Shadows (4) pre-dates Stoicha’s and is cited as one of his sources. Grombrich wrote this, much shorter, book to accompany an exhibition at The National Gallery in 1995. The final book by Roberto Casati which is also titled Shadows (5), is less interested in art and more an exploration of physics, or at a least a work of popular science.
(ii) Various beliefs about the the shadow as an object are explored in a previous essay The Mysterious Shadow. These beliefs include the ancient Greek’s idea that a man’s shadow is his soul which leaves to inhabit Hades after his death.
(iii) Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was naval commander of the Western Mediterranean during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian and died, probably from a combination of asthma and the poisonous fumes from the eruption, whilst attempting to rescue the fleeing citizens of Pompeii.
(iv) Somewhat as an aside to this story, but key to my thoughts for assignment 3, Pliny goes on to say “but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single colour and called monochrome, a method still in use at the present day”.
(v) Monet’s extensive series based around the water gardens at Giverny exclude the sky other than as a reflection in the ponds, and even then not always as a distinct and bold reflection but as impression of a bright overhead light. His representation of reflections is, not unsurprisingly, highly sophisticated and the viewer is left to unravel his depiction of the water’s surface often not knowing whether the dark areas are the vegetation below the waterline or reflected from its surface. Sagner-Düchting draws your attention to the lack of spatial orientation, the lack of an obvious top and bottom or an above and below, front and back. The lily’s float in open space and Monet intended that his paintings should be unframed and seen together in series so that the lily’s could “float” between his canvases.
(vii) The painter Abraham Walkowitz is on the left, Stieglitz to the right.
(viii) It is a strange fact that the shadows of two people when connected continue to be two shadows and do not become a single shadow. (5)
(ix) Johann Casper Lavater published Essays on Physiognomy in 1792 . His theory was that the shade or shadow of a person somehow contained their essence, an idea perhaps associated with the ancient belief that the soul resided in the shadow. His rather wholly thinking led him to believe that because there were no distractions it was possible to read a silhouette.
(3) Stoichita, Victor I. ( 1997) A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion
(4) Gombrich, Ernst (1995) Shadows: the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art. London: National Gallery Publications.
(5) Casati, Roberto (1961) Shadows: Unlocking The Secrets from Plato to Our Time (First Vintage Books Edition, 2004, translated from the Italian by Abigail Asher) New York: Vintage Books
(8) Renior, Pierre Auguste (2007) Renior Landscapes 1865 – 1883. London: The National Gallery
(9) Sagner-Düchting, Karin (1998) Claude Monet 1840 – 1926: A Feast for Eyes. Köln: Taschen
(1) 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
(2) Turner, Christopher (2006) A Short history of the Shadow: An Interview with Victor I. Stoicha (accessed at Cabinet Magazine 25.5.15) – http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/24/stoichita.php
(6) Kenaan, Hagi (?) Tracing Shadows: Reflections on the Origin of Painting (accessed at Tel Aviv University 25.5.15) – http://www.tau.ac.il/~kenaan/tracing.pdf
(7) La Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc (accessed at archeologie. culture. france 26.5.15) – http://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/
(10) Boltanski, Christian. Les Bougles, Lessons of Darkness (accessed at The Saleroom 29.5.15) – http://www.the-saleroom.com/de-de/auction-catalogues/lempertz/catalogue-id-kunsth10012/lot-2e6bbdeb-a86b-454d-9a97-a48a00d67ee8