The ‘Self’ in Self-Portraits

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This widely known and used proverb refers to the simple notion that complex ideas can be conveyed more effectively with a single image. It is important to consider however, that those thousand words which offer meaning to an image are reliant on the active engagement of the viewer, or who French literary theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes would refer to as, the ‘spectator’.[1] A photograph is a visual depiction of an individual or scene, captured at a particular time and place by the photographer or whom Barthes classifies as the ‘operator’. Although, a ‘real’ image of a person, a self/portrait is never a completely true illustration of the individual captured on film due to the interference of the aforementioned spectator and operator. Everyone has a unique and individual identity, which may combine cultural, genetic, religious, linguistic, and several other influences. Thus, it would be wrong to say that the spectator and operator involved in the viewing and making of a photograph are void of said identity-inclusive influences. In the making of a photograph, the operator may choose to introduce aspects of their own experiences, opinions and values into their work, that will affect the final image, just as the spectator will bring their own individual experiences and beliefs into the viewing of the image; which, in turn, influences their perception of it. In this manner, therefore, the stagnant, objective and material form of the photograph is transformed into a stimulating, subjective and fluid extension of the construction of one’s ‘self’ and identity; a construction that is impossible to establish due to its ever-changing nature.

In order to understand the multifaceted representation of identity in a photograph, it is crucial to understand the meaning of the ‘self’ in self-portraits. A person’s identity, as explained above, can be personal, cultural or even determined by a relationship. It can be something that is determined by you or for you, something enforced on you or taken away from you; regardless, one’s identity is always changing and hence inexplicable. Historically, the self-portrait has been analyzed and understood as a representation of emotions, which might “bestow an immortality of sorts upon the artist.”[2] Arguments have been made that identity can also be understood as a reflexive concept which corroborates this essay’s central argument that there is no one, true self. When spectators view a photographic self-portrait, they are not merely seeing an individual depiction of an existential being, but rather a “display of self-regard, self-preservation, self-revelation and self-creation”[3], that is open to a myriad of interpretations imposed on it by individual spectators. Through the use of photography as their tool, several artists interested in portraiture create works that provoke the viewer to question how they identify themselves and others.[4] In this never ending pursuit of a distinguishable and classifiable identity, the viewer is made to think about the way they perceive identity and what they have previously learned about the subject. An interesting aspect regarding self-portraits is the impossibility of their existence, as the artists can never completely capture a mimetic representation of the physical reality that they are seeing. Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man”, 1840, is one such impossible image, as the artist could not see what he was representing in the image, at the time.

This image shows Bayard, posing as a suicide victim, slumped against props. He is presenting himself as a dead man who has drowned himself due to the failure of the French authorities to recognize him, instead of Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, as the first inventor of photography. Although he never gained popularity as the inventor of the medium, Bayard instead, inadvertently, created the first photographic self-portrait. This image is no doubt of paramount significance to scholars and critics around the world who are interested in the idea of ‘self’ as it works to reveal the paradoxes within this style of photography. As mentioned before, due to the artist’s oblivious eye towards their own self-portraits, the ‘self’ represented in their images takes on the form of an ‘other’.[5] This is to say that an individual’s true self, when captured in portraits or even self-portraits, is never truly a whole depiction of who they really are. As soon as the camera fixes the image, the identity of the individual captured on film is no longer a concrete representation of their true self as, “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”[6] In this one simple sentence, writer and filmmaker, Susan Sontag has explained the inevitability of incorporating oneself into a photograph. Once reproduced on film, the individual is exactly that – reproduced, making the rendering the responses to their image innumerable. This can be corroborated with Victorian photographer’s suggestions that “rather than capturing identity, photography effaces it”,[7] where a self-portrait can be likened to a “form of literature and a form of fiction,”[8] equipped with the tools “to reflect both a personal and universal element”[9] in one’s individual and collective construction of identity.

While it is evident that a photograph speaks to the affiliation between the subjective and objective forces working in the construction of identity, is it essential also to consider the way in which people create their own ‘self’ through the act of taking a ‘selfie’. Don Slater, professor of sociology, notes, “we construct ourselves for the image and through the image”[10] arguing that ones relationship to their photographic self becomes an impression of consumerist ideology. The compulsion felt by almost everyone who owns a camera to take a self-portrait is never more evident than in today’s society. With an unprecedented increase in the distribution of smart phones and other technological devices and applications that enable and promote self-portraiture, it is no surprise that the phenomenon of the ‘selfie’ has taken over this generation’s social sphere. With the brewing need to capture every moment deemed ‘special’, individuals around the globe are unknowingly contributing to a new stylistic discourse of photography, where the ‘photographer’ is seen either holding their camera with an outstretched arm or with physical aids such as the ‘selfie-stick’, facing the lens on their own subject – themselves.[11] Sontag put it best when she stated that this need to “have reality confirmed and experienced, enhanced by photographs, is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”[12]

Through the use and manipulation of varying poses, filters and often times the use of Photoshop, individuals alter the objective lens of the camera and in this way, show their spectators what they choose to focus on. By caving under the pressures of “the most irresistible form of mental pollution”[13] and exploiting technological aids to present themselves in a particular fashion, several self-portraits taken today have become fragmented echoes of one’s true identity, only capable of hinting at but never truly capturing the authentic ‘self’. In contrast, self-portraits created in the 1970s and 80s often were not as ubiquitous as they are today and were often regarded as an important tunnel of passage for those beginning to question their individual place in a political and creative context.[14] Artists often turned to self-portraiture to express their identity in terms of gender, sexuality, race and so on, using their physical bodies as a means to attract attention to the otherwise overlooked aspects of culture at the time.[15] Robert Mapplethorpe is one such artist, who used the techniques of classical art photography to create images that dealt with “homoerotic and gay culture at the centre of the New York at scene”[16] at the time. His self-portraits depict the artist in a number of different situations, from acting as a woman, wearing devil horns to the haunting “Self portrait” taken in 1988, which reflects upon the notion of mortality.

This black and white image depicts Mapplethorpe’s head, which directly faces the camera, positioned near the top right-hand corner of the photograph. The opposite side consists of his hand that grips a cane topped with a small human skull. Although originally intended as a photograph of the ailing artist’s ornamented walking cane, Mapplethorpe decided to wear a black turtleneck jumper and incorporate himself into the image to create one of the most arresting self-portraits of his time. Seeing as he is completely covered by his turtleneck, except for his face and hand, the rest of his body is rendered indistinguishable from the background and hence creates the illusion of a floating head in an otherwise empty space. This illusion further perpetuates the overall stark paleness of artist’s skin and the image in general. The scale of Mapplethorpe’s hand compared to his head suggests that he is sitting further back with his hand outstretched, grabbing his walking cane. This in turn caters for the slight blurring of his head in relation to his hand and cane, which gives the viewer an impression that he is fading away. It is almost as if the viewer can feel the morose atmosphere, created by this photograph, even though they were not present at the time of its creation. Ultimately, Sontag argues that due to the ubiquity of self-portraits and photography overall, allows for the act of taking a photograph to become identical to participating in the actual event.[17]

There are several photographic works that are classified as self-portraits, or understood as such in a conceptual manner, without actually falling into the traditional sense of the genre. It is often argued that all photographs are self-portraits in themselves as the photographer’s personal view and interpretation is projected onto the image.[18] As seen in Mapplethorpe’s work, the contemporary definition of an artist’s self-portrait requires the artist to be part of the image itself however, there are many examples of photographs that break the traditional confinements of self-portraiture and display the expansive nature of the style. One such example would be Lee Friedlander’s photograph titled “New York”, captured in 1966. The image consists of a blonde female dressed in a fur coat, walking through the streets of New York, with her back turned to the lens. The most interesting part of the image is the shadow of Friedlander himself that is reflected onto the back of this female. The shadow has often been utilized in a similar manner, where the prominent reflection of the artist in this image, is transformed into the artist himself. There is a disturbing element to this photo as the female seems to be followed by the photographer however, the addition of the artist’s reflection and hence himself into the image, neutralizes such eerie feelings as it draws the attention towards “the construction of his image making.”[19] Another key example worth considering when discussing unconventional self-portraits would be the “Portraits” series, photographed by Thomas Ruff from 1981 to 1985.

Though not actual self-portraits of the artist himself, the series consists of 60, half-length passport-like portraits, most of whom were Ruff’s fellow students. His series goes against the traditional purpose of portraiture, that is, to capture the emotions of the subject and in some cases, the photographer as well. In contrast to Barthes’ arguments about photographs having a ‘punctum’, or in other words, a moment where the image communicates a special meaning to the spectator, Ruff capitalizes on a more pragmatic view of portraits. Ruff’s series encapsulates the superficial surface of its subjects; the exterior and materiality of the image is the most important aspect of his work. Unlike most photographers, Ruff is not concerned with representing his interpretation of his subject’s individual personalities and would rather portray blank expressions under bland lighting conditions to emphasize the materiality of the medium. In doing so however, Ruff is unwittingly forcing his personal views and hence, sense of self, onto his images. It is fair then, to argue that despite the unconventional nature of these self-portraits, they still allude to that fact that ones identity cannot be accurately and wholly represented in a photograph. Spectators see what is presented by the operator however often struggle through the “painful labor” of “straining toward the essence of [one’s] identity”.

Through the analysis of the idea of the self, along with the compulsion to capture oneself on film, it is clear that the process of making and engaging with a photograph is purely subjective. The operator and spectator impart their own individual experiences into the subjective making and viewing of the objective image, confirming that it is the individual’s experiences and not the image itself that imbue an image with meaning and value. Thus, it can be concluded that photography offers enthusiasts a channel through which one can access their current conception of identity and self-hood, while establishing the meaning and significance of a photograph from where the material traces of the medium diminish and the individual’s dynamic and subjective experiences take precedence. [20]

 Written by Amanda Brachio

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)
Self Portrait, 1988
Medium Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
577 x 481 mm
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
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