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Category: P3 C&N – Putting yourself in the picture

Ex – washing up

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
What does this series achieve by not including people?
Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

(OCA C&N, p87)

Nigel Shafran’s work, washing-up,  can be viewed on his website.

I felt no surprise this was taken by a man as I live in a culture and generation where a man’s place as often as a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Though I can image contemporaries from different cultures would find it surprising. If we travelled back into UK history, I imagine a time when it may have been surprising.

I mentioned above gender in the context of culture and time (insofar as culture evolves over time). Where photographers follow or echo the gender stereotypes within their cultures, there could be some influence of  gender on the subjects selected for images. But a stereotype is a generalisation so there can be no definite ‘yes/no’ answer, but rather ‘it depends’. For example, it is perhaps more likely that male over female gender photographers would sit by the edge of a football pitch and photograph a match.

As the series excludes people, it is easier for us to place ourselves or others into the scene. It could be my washing up, it could be my children’s washing up, my wife’s washing up, or a stranger’s washing up. The absence of a person broadens the possibilities for interpretation and allows the mind space to imagine.

In a ‘spot-the-difference’ way or as an observation of what is happening in someone’s kitchen , I find the images interesting. However in terms of shape and form the content of the images is hard on the eye – random and without pattern or rhythm. There is something self-indulgent about putting this on display – a little like a 10 minute guitar solo that would be better kept as a personal exercise. I would not put this work up on my walls.


Nigel Shafran [website] Washing-up. Available from: http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/ [accessed 2.3.16]

Ex – childhood memory

Recreate a childhood memory in a photograph. Think carefully about the memory you choose and how you’ll recreate it. (OCA C&N, p82).

Image shows me as-is and as-was. The distance between the two subjects connotes the distance between time. They are standing as mirror images, reflections of one another across time. The only constant is the skateboard (there is only one), a memento that has travelled across time to link the as-was with the as-is.

My intention was to recreate my childhood memory of skateboarding, which was an obsession for me as a pre-teen. I still have my skateboard, which is at least 35 years old. I asked my younger son to model for me – ask he cannot ride, I shot some images of him performing maintenance work, holding the board and placing one foot on it while keeping the other firmly on the ground. Maintenance has a vivid space in my memory – greasing bearings and getting my childhood machine to run in tip-top condition.

To recreate the feel of the 1970s/80s I planned to post-process using an analogue effect (Nik).

My idea changed course during post-processing. Wrapping up the shoot, I asked my son if he’d like to take a few pictures (with the camera strap placed carefully around his neck) – more for his entertainment than anything else. The idea came of combining a photo of each of us into one image, both holding the same skateboard – myself-as-is and myself-as-was. There is some distance between the two subjects in the final image (as some friends have noted) – in reality because they are separate images, but metaphorically due to the distance in time between as-is and as-was. I may not have thought of using an image taken by my son had I not just read about the work of Nikki Lee! Sometimes good things happen from accidents, but accidents can’t be planned!

Some of the comments I received when posting the image to friends and fellow students, asking what it made them think about:

OCA Students

KN – Father and son bond and inner child
SW – If you hadn’t said self-portrait, I’d have wondered what the relationship was between the two. The distance between them seems quite large and uncomfortable for it to be father and son.
KN – Very true SW and a very good point, yet their stance is almost a mirror image of each other so i guess they spend quite some time together.

Other Friends

CW – An album cover, or a single cover. Ramones?
LL –  that an injury may occur!
GN – Why don’t you go longboard?
PB – Midlife crisis on a budget.

The final image is featured at the head of this post. The images used to make the composite are attached below.

Ex – masquerades


  • Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs, or both?
  • Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
  • Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. (OCA C&N, p79)

Nikki Lee’s Projects work is shown online by Leslie Tonkonow. It has a snapshot aesthetic with a difference behind the scenes – Lee is acting out a disparate part in each of the snapshots; dressing as anything from  a senior to an exotic dancer. ‘… After transforming her own appearance, Lee approaches members of the group, explains her project, and has a friend or passerby photograph her with a small automatic-focus camera. Part Zelig, part Cindy Sherman, Lee cleverly explores the mutability of social identity as well as the immigrant’s desire to blend into a new culture…’ (Metropolitan Museum). In Lee’s YouTube interview, she describes herself as a performance artist and photographer – in fact the photos are not taken by Lee herself but by friends using point-and-shoot cameras, to contribute to the authentic look of a snapshot.

Source: vice.com
Source: vice.com

Lee puts considerable effort into her masquerades, taking on the persona of someone who would be part of the group she wishes to infiltrate for a ‘project’. Even to the extent of personal coaching and dieting for several months to pass herself off as an exotic dancer. She enters the worlds covertly, her true identity not revealed to the group (implied in her New York Times interview and an article in Vice) – or is this true? – , her friends photographing her on cheap cameras as part of the pretence (or as Lee would have it, as part of the look she wanted in the photographs). It seems that Lee deceives the groups she uses as subjects and uses their images as part of her art and self-promotion as an artist. The covert and deceptive practice are by definition voyeuristic and exploitative of her subjects. Though the reality of Lee’s process is only truly known between her and her subjects; without the covert and the deceptive, the response to the question of exploitation and voyeurism is too turned on its head. The work is a superficial commentary on the groups in the photographs – a snapshot only. To me, it says more about Lee herself and raises questions about what she is seeking to show – that identity is mutable? That she is a clever performer to more or less camouflage herself within the groups? That she is doing something different with the medium – a  photographer, not using a camera? I wonder whether she sees herself as a photographer at all, or a performance artist – though she has certainly been embraced by the art photography establishment (has her own page in Photography Today (2014), Phaidon Press, London).

Source: guardian.com
Source: guardian.com

Trish Morrissey’s work Front  is shown on her own website – approaching strangers on the beach and asking to step in place of one of the group, while the extracted member presses the shutter (under instruction). The Guardian features an interview with Morrissey in which she explains her approach, saying ‘it takes a lot of bottle to ask strangers to do something like this’. The article suggests that she is working with a large format camera, which would give some her some believability when presenting herself as an artist. Being a woman would make he less likely to be perceived as a stranger-threat than a man. Whether or not I would agree to being photographed if approach would really depend on my perception of Morrissey as a person and how the request was explained – this is assuming I’d have no pre-knowledge of Morrissey’s work. Now I know about her work, I would consent to being part of her work.


The Guardian (2013) [online]. Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach (23 January). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot [accessed 28.2.16]

Leslie Tonkonow [website]. Nikki S. Lee – Projects. Available from: http://www.tonkonow.com/lee.html [accessed 28.2.16]

Metropolitan Museum [website]. Available from: http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/284363?=&imgno=0&tabname=related-objects [accessed 28.2.16]

New York Times [online]. SHOPPING WITH — Nikki S. Lee; Dressing the Part Is Her Art. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/02/style/shopping-with-nikki-s-lee-dressing-the-part-is-her-art.html?pagewanted=all [accessed 28.2.16]

Richardson T (2013). New Directions in Folklore. Serialization, Ethnographic Drag, and the Ineffable Authenticity of Nikki S. Lee. Available from: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/ndif/article/…/3693.  [accessed 28.2.16]

Trish Morrissey [website]. Available from: http://www.trishmorrissey.com [accessed 28.2.16]

Vice [website]. Part-Time Punks – Simon Doom Was NOT Fooled by Nikki S. Lee.  https://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/part-time-punks-simon-doom-on-nikki-s-lees-poseur-art [accessed 28.2.16]

YouTube. Photographer Nikki S. Lee Can Turn Into Anyone. Available from: https://youtu.be/oI8xpJItPVI [accessed 28.2.16]

Ex – autobiographical self-portraiture

Reflect on the pieces of work discussed in this project in your learning log and do some further research of your own.

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

  • How do these images make you feel?
  • Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?
  • What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
  • Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
  • Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?

(OCA C&N, p78)

For this exercise, I have reflected on the work suggested in the OCA project: Keith Greenough’s, I am iron man (see photo-graph.org);

Greenough’s  work was part of his broader research into ‘wider investigation into strategies portrait photographers use for ‘disarming the pose’’. The images were taken immediately after training, with the aim that he would be too tired to pose. Whether any of us can ‘un-pose’ in a self-portrait I don’t know; the act of knowingly putting oneself in front of a camera and an taking a self-portrait must by definition require some posing, otherwise we wouldn’t be in front of the camera. However, it is definitely a different kind of pose – I feel like am am looking at a man dressed in lycra who is comfortable in his own skin and is not role-playing; he is an iron man. I believe it. Greenough mentions that he wanted to portray the ‘ironman’ differently to the ‘heroic’ poses often used in this area of interest – wanting to show something different, beyond himself.

Francesca Woodman’s tragic story is summarised in the Telegraph, which features an interview with her parents. While the Tate online, shows a selection of her images. Her self-portraits are visually captivating and sometimes troubling – she makes art from her own image and simple surroundings. They are haunting, black and white, blurry and otherworldly. Some images are seductive and the artist objectifies herself by revealing only body-parts and not engaging with the gaze of the camera – self-voyeuristic. An example is a self-portrait where she appears naked curled on the ground, with a snake alongside. The other-worldliness style of her work is tied in with the narrative of some photos – herself as an angel or hanging by her arms from a doorway. It may be tempting to make a connection between the way she portrays herself and her suicide at the age of just 22, but this would be speculative.

In the context to Elina Brotherus’ self-portraiture (see website), she explains her approach:

In one’s own private world everyone is like an origin of co-ordinates from where one perceives one’s environment. I study the emotional landscape and feelings of the individual and how he or she becomes part of the whole formed by the others. I express my studies in photographs.

Brotherus discusses her work on the Louisiana Channel, talking through some of her notable works. She talks about the representation of feelings and events affecting her life through photography – it is very personal work, like a diary. She tends not to reconstruct moments, but to capture them as they arise, considering this honest. She discusses the Annunciation series (her own ultimately unsuccessful struggle with IVF treatment), saying that she did not initially want to publish it as it was ‘too personal’. However Susan Bright, persuaded her to publish.

Considering Brotherus’ nudity in her self-portraits – there is nothing sexual or pornographic in her representation. She wears her own skin as comfortably as her own clothes. It is as if we are looking at skin as clothes. It contrasts with the work of Woodman, some of which includes seductive/erotic posture. I am also mindful that for the British, appearing naked in public is not generally something with which we are comfortable, whereas in Brotherus’ native Finland there is a different culture; nudity is not an issue (Helsinki Times, November 2012.http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/lifestyle/4475-nudity-not-an-issue). How nudity is perceived is strongly dependent on the culture and personal values of the viewer.

Gillian Wearing’s work, Album, recreated her family album by the artist wearing elaborate plastic masks moulded into the image of her other family members. As well as a considerable technical achievement (the images look extremely realistic), Wearing’s intention was for the work to show herself through her connection to the rest of her family – although visually different, they have a genetic connection. This is the self-portrait as conceptual art!

There is a general question with self-portraiture about whether it is self-indulgent / narcissistic. This is a profound question and was discussed in the context of ‘selfies’ in Psychology Today, which firstly defines some more precise traits, ‘“Dark Triad”, of narcissism,  psychopathy, machiavellianism, and self-objectification. In the end the research seems to suggest there is a small correlation between selfies and narcissism. The Daily Mail (for what it’s worth) features an article about photographer Emily Knecht, who has taken pictures of herself crying over a period of three years, supposedly in protest against narcissistic and dishonest social media snaps. However, I find this difficult to reconcile with a quick visit to Knecht’s website which features several top-less pool-based self-portraits. Sometimes this kind of ‘protest’ can be self-promotional’. The Daily Telegraphy, as an art-culture based view on the topic, referencing the work of Cindy Sherman and others as well as social media. The article provides an insightful perspective on the impact of the camera-phone selfie on photography (a slight digression), which I quote here:

But this approach has led to a profound shift in the vanishing point, which has historically been understood as a point disappearing on the horizon. What disappears today is the photographer’s hand, holding the camera aimed at himself. While the hand lies outside the frame, the outstretched arm seems to vanish into the foreground. The vanishing point is not off in the distance, but on our bodies. Once we directed our gaze outwards, now we look inwards and invite the world to watch as we lose ourselves.

All of this reflects my gut reaction to the initial question about whether there is an element of narcissism / self-indulgence in self-portraiture; it depends on the intention of the photographer. Also, the viewer may read this intention differently depending on their cultural and social background.

Finally, do the images discussed here ‘work’ for the viewer as an outsider, without accompanying text? For me the answer is yes, but understanding can be greatly enhanced by text. For example, while we can experience the emotion in Brotherus’ Annunciation series, we cannot understand what caused the sadness.


Elina Borhterus [website]. Available from: http://www.elinabrotherus.com/news/ [accessed 21.2.16]

Guggenheim [website]. Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny. Available from: ://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=732&id=155 [accessed 21.2.16]

Louisiana Channel [website]. Elina BrotherusIt’s Not Me, It’s a Photograph. Available from: http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/elina-brotherus-its-not-me-its-a-photograph.  [accessed 21.2.16]

MoMA [website]. Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Stills.” . Available from: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/2/mobile.php [accessed 21.2.16]

Photo-graph.org [blog]. musings on the photographic experiences of keith greenough. Available from: http://photo-graph.org [accessed 21.2.16]

Seidman G (2015). Psychology Today [website]. Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy? (08 January). Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/close-encounters/201501/are-selfies-sign-narcissism-and-psychopathy [accessed 21.2.16]

The Tata [website]. Francesca Woodman 1958–1981. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512 [accessed 21.2.16]

The Daily Mail [website] (2015). The sobbing selfies: Woman takes self-portrait every time she cries in three-year protest against ‘narcissistic’ and ‘dishonest’ social media snaps. (26 June). Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3139619/Woman-hits-dishonest-nature-selfies-powerful-collection-self-portraits-taken-time-cried-three-years.html [accessed 21.2.16]

The Daily Telegraphy (2011) [website]. We’re all narcissists now (03 December). Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/8928819/Were-all-narcissists-now.html [accessed 21.2.16]

The Daily Telegraphy (2010) [website]. Francesca Woodman: eerie visions from a life cut short (16 November). Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8130041/Francesca-Woodman-eerie-visions-from-a-life-cut-short.html [accessed 21.2.16]