Home » Blog » Ex – autobiographical self-portraiture

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]


Comments here