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Auto Focus – book review

Auto Focus features a dazzling array of photographs by seventy-five of the world’s foremost contemporary photographers whose work focuses on self-portraiture.

(Bright, from cover sleeve)

The book includes 332 illustrations, with 288 in colour. It provides a fascinating insight into the genre of self-portrait photography, split in to chapters covering the themes of autobiography, body, masquerade, studio and album and performance. I find this an interesting genre, as despite its apparent ubiquity, it is not something I have personally explored or considered in any depth until now.

Autobiography gives the artist an opportunity to explore their own identity, to reflect on their own being. It is a meditation on self. Sunil Gupta exploring his illness through HIV (Bright, p 42), or Anna Fox (Ibid, p44) exploring her relationship with alcohol are two examples.

‘The body in self-portraiture has long fascinated … from classical renderings of the nude form to the use of the body to question what is human in a highly critical and political way.’ (Ibid, p62). Using our own bodies in photography in a partial state of undress, needs serious consideration in the context of our own cultures and expectations of behaviour in our social and professional environments. However, Bright shows us a number of examples of artist using the body, other than as a nude form.

The chapter on masquerade opens with a quote that sums up the sub-genre:

The artist disappears
No one knows where he went
He leaves his signs here and there
He is seen in this part of town and, the next moment,
miraculously, on the other side of town.
One senses him rather than sees him –
A lounger, a drunkard, a tennis-player, a bicycle rider,
Always violently denying that he did it.
Everyone gives a different description of the criminal.

Ry Gun, Claes Oldenburg’s alter ego

(Ibid, p99)

Bright explains that ‘photography’s rich and complex tradition of masquerade is thriving in contemporary art’ (Ibid, p99), and illustrates this through a number of artists. Aneta Grzeszykowska interestingly explains he she uses self-portrait as a tool for realising wider ideas, a kind of sketch pad or story board. I see masquerade as an extension of childhood games of dressing up or role-playing – ‘cowboys and indians’ for my generation, ‘Harry Potter spell battles’ for my children. Bright explains that Joan Fontcuberta ‘… uses playful narratives to question assumptions about truth in photography’ (Ibid, p124).

‘Studio and album’ deals with the context of portrait photography in the locations of studio and album. Bright explores the codes and conventions derived from these locations through the work of a number of artists.

The final chapter of the book deals with ‘performance’, opening with the quote, ‘I love acting, Its is so much more real than life.’ (Oscar Wilde). This is concerned with using photography to capture the performance of a work (performance art). Bright explains how the role of photography has evolved in this area – initially it was coincidental to the performance, often not high quality, but for the sake of keeping a record of the performance. However, it has evolved so that the performance is often made with the objective of capturing it in photographs; a performance primarily to the camera rather than an audience.

I would recommend this book as an excellent reference source for anyone interested in portrait-photography; it covers a breadth of styles and artist and includes high quality images.

References

Bright S (2010). Auto Focus – the self-portrait in contemporary photography. London, Thames & Hudson.

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