Part 3 Project 1 ex 1

Reflecting on autobiographical self-portraiture

(Rough Notes)

The photographers in this section are using photographic tools to explore their identity. 

“Francesca Woodman explored issues of gender representation and the use of the female body in her work”

I like the aesthetic of Woodman’s work, but I’m not sure that Bright’s analyses, that her work alludes to a ‘troubled state of mind’, is that obvious to me. It’s easy to look back on her work and read things into it that just weren’t there and I wonder if reading a troubled state of mind into it helps to obscure other messages that she may have wanted to communicate. 

I like the work of Elina Brotherus, particularly some of the video work available on her website. The ideas behind Annunciation are moving and reflect an experience that many women face. Having faced issues with fertility myself at one point, I found the process of investigation into that was an invasion of my privacy, despite the best efforts of the NHS staff involved, most of whom where brilliant. So I find it difficult to reconcile the use of nakedness, which Brotherus is presumably using to express vulnerability, with how I felt going through a similar experience. My privacy was taken from me and so it made me more determined to hold onto the little I felt I had left. 

My worry with both Woodman and Brotherus and others is that in general I keep seeing female photographers using their bodies in self portraiture in a way that male photographers do not. This is often this is under the guise of vulnerability, truthfulness or honesty. However, I seldom see men feeling the need to remove their clothes for this. 

There is obviously a history in terms of art and the female nude, but surely we are now freed from this? I don’t object to the use of the nude, male or female, and the body can express a lot, but I wonder that so much is read into the use of the naked female that is not simultaneously read into the use of the naked male. How much of this is actually about an appeal to the male gaze because men are still the gatekeepers to success in the world of art? If this isn’t the case then why do I not see male photographers using their naked bodies for self portraiture in similar numbers, given that in general I am much more likely to see the work of men (many more male photographers and artists experience commercial and artistic success and acclaim than female photographers do)? 

Does this mean that the naked female form and the naked male form have different meanings? Presumably there are historic reasons for this, but to say that none of these photographers have used their body as a sexualised object would be naive. When male photographers use female nakedness as a subject, they tend to use very slim, young models rather than ask questions that could be answered by the use of fat octogenarians, for example.

How is it that we don’t see naked self portraits by fat female nonagenarians? I suspect that they would not do quite as well in the art world as self portraits by slim women in their 20s. So I am left wondering if these photographers have experienced success because they were willing to undress, which is unfair on them, but it’s a question I find myself asking.

What does Brotherus’ nakedness say to her? As a female, what would my nakedness say to me that a man’s nakedness doesn’t say to him? How am I taught to see myself that my nakedness becomes a huge deal, something to examine and reveal, that it doesn’t say to a man? I am left thinking that it’s typically men, in societal terms, who like to expose themselves. As a child my friends and I had several experiences of a man in the local woods who would expose himself; that seems like a male behaviour. I’ve never heard of a female doing that. But women are exposed for the pleasure of men. 

Women are taught to be more aware of the appearance of their bodies; so perhaps that is why we are more likely to include them in self portraits – because we see them as important. But that importance has come about because of the incessant sexualisation of female bodies, not as an exploration of intellect, which would be suggested by a prominence of the face in the image.

In the series ‘Artists at Work’, Brotherus uses her nakedness again, but in a different way.

She poses the question, who is watching who? But in the photographs the male painters are looking at their canvas and only in one image does one painter seem to be looking at her. To me, the first image in which she is fully clothed says more about her. Her clothes and her environment are more revealing about her than her nakedness. She has control over her clothing and environment, where she only has limited control over her body’s physical appearance which is really genetic. So I get that the work is supposed to be about power, but I remain to be convinced that the ultimate power in this series sits with the photographer herself and that it’s not power put into the hands of the viewer.

Family portraits

I know the work of Sally Mann reasonably well.  Although I prefer her landscape work I know that her most well known work has focused on her family life. Taking it as a different time and a different culture, I can appreciate the beauty of it and know that the photographs come from simpler times where naked bodies of children would not be assumed to be sexualised as has unfortunately happened in todays’ world. 

Elinor Carucci

I concentrated on Carucci’s personal work. This was my favourite of all the photographers mentioned in the text. The portraits are more intimate than most people would feel comfortable with, and I suppose that’s really a theme running through a lot of these photographers – the intimacy is created by revealing things that would normally stay hidden such as bodies and mundane moments that are universally understood, such as the imprint of a zip on flesh – something most people have experienced but seldom see represented in imagery. 

Richard Billingham

Although I can identify with Ray’s a Laugh, I don’t like it. I’ve seen some of it before, although I didn’t know what the context of the work was. I’m still quite interested to watch the film Liz and Ray though. It might be a little too close to home for me, a bit too reminiscent of family times I want to forget. Or that I know were very close to me. I wonder about the impact of this work; it obviously had impact, but although because of personal circumstances of my childhood I find it disturbing I wonder if people are just being voyeuristic in it. I don’t know. 

Tierney Gearon’s work focusing on her schizophrenic mother interests me as my mother suffers from the same condition and I have often thought about taking photos of her. However, I have seen that there is a film about her work, where her mother begs to be let back into the house rather than stand outside having her photo taken – I find this disturbing. I really do wonder about the mental health of Gearon herself if she can treat people this way. It’s very difficult when you have a mentally ill parent because there is a lot of anger that has no-where to go; you cannot blame them, they seemingly have not brought the condition on themselves even though you, as a child, suffer greatly for it. It would be easy for me to take that anger out on my mother by humiliating her and I can see the shock of doing that being something that could cause a stir, but I cannot and will not countenance it. So I avoid it because I am wary of humiliating her or revealing things that were her mind working correctly she might not want revealed. Gearon’s work stands in stark contrast to the work Phil and Me, which is more nuanced and caring. 

Gillian Wearing is difficult for me; being honest, I just cannot understand what the big deal is. I take issue with the text claiming that ‘photographers who use self portraiture as a means of self-exploration tend to be unafraid of expressing who they are through the medium’. Surely Wearing, for example, is using her work to literally hide part of herself. She is hiding herself behind the image of others, be that her family or famous icons. 

I don’t think the images of any of the photographers are narcissistic or self-indulgent though. I would like to see a broader range of ‘family’ represented in these family portraits. There is a lot of inter-generational work, but is this always about the relationship of the photographer to the subject rather than subject to subject? I don’t know. Self examination via photography, or any artform, is positive; however, the looking —- is that voyeurism? It could be. The brutality of the images can show a lack of warmth towards someone. That’s a message in itself I suppose, but I wonder how much some images are taken with shock and pushing boundaries in mind? 

No make-up selfie