Putting Yourself in the Picture: Project # 1 – Autobiographical Self-Portrait

I’ve just noticed that this post’s trigger from the coursebook says “Make some notes”. This is more like an essay. Or a short book.

The first time this post was saved was on – good grief! – the 28th of June 2015. I have written a bit, gone off to do an exercise, come back, written some more, gone away and done the assignment, put off writing up the other exercises and now come back here again, after I have completed all the write ups for part five and begin to prepare the module for assessment.

And so, for the umpteenth time, I realise that I really must start working in a way that produces shorter, more notey, blogposts…

Simon Chirgwin, April 2017


And now here is what I started writing last June; I have changed hardly anything; I cannot understand why I didn’t just hit “publish”…

Before we get onto the main exercise for project three (Putting yourself in the Picture) there is a question asked in passing:

“It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits – she produced over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.” (Bright, 2010, p.25)

Look up Francesca Woodman’s images online. What evidence can you find for Bright’s analysis? (C&N Coursebook, p.74)

I have looked and looked again at Woodman’s pictures – in the Phaidon monograph, online and on the three occasions I visited Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern – and I quite like them. I don’t pretend to understand them but the good ones are intriguing and opaque in a way that keeps you looking and wondering what it is that’s going on.

If you just look at the pictures they show a young woman, studying and working through ideas in a methodical yet still playful way. Some of the pictures seem less successful than others, but you’d expect that in a large body of work that was made as someone worked out a set of ideas and techniques over a relatively short period of time.

But of course, you can’t just look at the pictures. Any time you try , you are confronted by her suicide.

“One thing we do know is that a few years after making these photographs, Woodman killed herself by jumping out of the window of an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was 22.” (Dyer p.217)

You can read Chris Townsend’s long introductory essay Scattered in Space and Time (Townsend; pp 6-71) which looks at the various threads of artistic and political thought – American Gothic, Surrealism, Feminism, Post Minimalism, even the Self Portrait – that can be traced through her pictures, but it’s a long, hard read and in the end you must come back to:

A prodigy, Woodman produced a distinctive body of work before committing suicide in 1981 at the age of 23.” (Durden p.328)

Or Bright’s quote at the start of this post. Or, at the door of the room of Woodman’s pictures at Tate Modern:

 

Room Note The Photograph as Performance; Tate Modern (18th Feb - 12th June 2016)

Photography as Performance; Tate Modern (18th Feb – 12th June 2016)

Her suicide is not so much used as an anchor for her work, it is used to run her work around on the shore, making sure it never sails again. To stretch (and mix) the metaphor to the point of absurdity, Francesca Woodman’s work has become a picturesque wreck used by cultural divers as an object for speculation without needing to view it as an active, moving thing cutting through the sea.

Francesca Woodman is dead. (She took these pictures) She was 22. (Look, she seems to be trying to become one with the inanimate in a lot of them) Francesca Woodman killed herself.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger shows two reproductions of van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The first is at the bottom of the right-hand page (p.27); above it is the text, “This is a landscape with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment. Then turn the page.” You do and are confronted by the second reproduction (p.28). It is identical to the first, but below it, in a hand-written script is the sentence: “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Berger takes up his text again, “It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.

This is exactly what happens with Woodward’s work, not just to one picture but to all of them. Besides Berger’s example of van Gogh, I can think of many artists who have killed themselves: Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker et al. The extent to which their death inflects the work that proceeded it varies according to how much of that work there is, the extent to which it dealt with the artist’s state of mind and also how well known it was before they died. You tend to forget that Hemingway shot himself, because people already knew who “Hemingway” was; you can’t escape Sylvia Plath’s depression because she wrote a novel about it; everyone knows that van Gogh cut his ear off, painted sunflowers and a chair and shot himself after only selling only one painting…

And then you start looking at the work and wondering whether you can see some sort of premonition of what will happen. Dyer (p.45-48) works through this using William Gedney’s picture of Diane Arbus at work as a jumping off point for a discussion of people trying to see a death foretold in photographs. He goes on to discuss other pictures – for example Paul Strand’s  Mr Bennet, East Jamaica, Vermont 1943 – quoting Strand as saying “He died six months later […] That’s one of the things in his face, only I didn’t know it then” which, along with Bennet’s expression in the famous picture seems to suggest you can, but then seems to come to the conclusion that – if it is in fact there – it is only visible with hindsight.

Indeed, the picture of Mr Bennet that was on the wall of the recent exhibition at the V&A was a different one from the famous one of him full face, with an expression that seems to speak of a hard life and – possibly – an imminent death. Rather the picture exhibited in the New England sequence at the V&A showed Bennett in front of the same clinker built wooden wall, but this time looking out of the frame to camera left with a pipe in his mouth and an unreadable expression. Certainly it is much harder to link the way he looked with his death, a lack of association that was possibly helped by the recording of Bennett’s daughter that played from a speaker in the gallery’s ceiling where she said how it was her father to the life, focussing on the loop of string in his collar that was used as a button hole. Certainly he seemed more alive than staring death in the face.

So, in Woodman’s pictures, there is wit and there is fun; there are Hammer Films tropes and stuff that can be traced back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; there are things that make me think of fairy tales; there are eels and lilies and other things that have to be symbols of something. They don’t seem to be any more about death than most Western art, but – because of her death – they are altered and they are all that we have.

Her work had become finite and historical before more than a handful of people knew it existed. It has been presented to us as a curated post-mortem artefact by her parents.

She didn’t leave an awful lot of clues as to what the work was about; even when there is a title, it’s usually a fairly gnomic one like Space Squared. If her pictures are windows, showing something or some action with Woodman using herself (and, don’t forget, also using models at times) as an illustrative object, the glass is dirty; if they are a mirror, showing us versions of herself, then that mirror is badly silvered.

 


Reflect on the pieces of work discussed in this project (by Woodman, Brotherus and Wearing) 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? Make some notes in your learning log. (C&N Coursebook p.78)


1: Francesca Woodman

The quote from Bright (p.25) that opens this post goes on to say “Woodman performs a game of hide and seek with the camera. She attempts to merge with her surroundings and fade into the background but the opposite happens and her body stands out exposed by the static space.” She creates hermetically isolated worlds that exist outside time and space and even though they are generally tagged with the location of their making – Providence, Rhode Island; Rome; Boulder, Colorado – there is very little sense of “place” to them. If they are to be read as autobiography, it is more in the sense of a dream diary or a series of imaginings than as a record of her actual life.

We are asked to consider whether her work seems narcissistic or self indulgent and, to some extent, I think it is. At any rate it is rather self-absorbed. She is looking at herself and using herself as a handy model. She becomes the object of her own subjectivity, of her own focussed gaze. My main problem with this is that – just as it exists outside the physical locations where it was made – Woodman’s photographs make little attempt to engage with anything outside their own narrow frame of reference.

Woodman’s family did not have a TV. I remember what people “who did not have a tv” were like in the 70s. It’s a thing that rings alarm bells. At the same time as Woodman was making these pictures, Cindy Sherman – like Martin Scorcese – was watching Million Dollar Movie (interview in The Observer, 3rd July 2016) and soaking up the culture she was surrounded by; The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Modern Lovers were making art-inflected music on the East Coast of the USA; in Orkney, 15 year old me would have bitten my arm off to get near Providence or New York . Woodman seems barely to have noticed where she was.

Woodman’s room in Performing for the Camera was fitted into the section on “Photographic Actions” rather than “Self-Portrait” at the Tate and I am inclined to agree with this categorisation. I think they are better approached in terms of consciously and carefully constructed works of art and linking them and their content in the grand Romantic fashion to the life of “the artist” is less useful than approaching them from a more theoretically engaged critical direction.

As I move towards part four of Context and Narrative,  I am currently making a start – amongst other things – with getting my head around the ideas in  Victor Burgin’s Thinking Photography at the same time as writing up part three. I have got to the point in Burgin (p.75) where he is discussing the Jacques Durand’s application of rhetorical figures (repetition, ellipsis, simile, metaphor etc) to the analysis of – in particular – advertising .

After college Woodman was beginning to make some headway into getting commercial work – fashion photography and advertising – while not getting much traction with an art world that she was increasingly out of tune with. Thinking about this I realised that there was possibly more to be gained thinking about Woodman’s pictures from this angle: the pictures of her holding up her arms, sleeved in birch bark in a grove of silver birches are dealing in simile (“my arms are like birch trees”); her fusing of herself with the walls of the house in Providence is closer to metaphor (“I am one with this building”); the photograph on the front of the Phaidon book is dealing in repetition (three naked women wearing prints of Woodman’s face as masks) and difference ( the real Woodman’s the one on the right – you can recognise the white socks and sandals from other pictures taken at the same time).

I’m not sure where this is leading me, but it seems potentially more productive than more autobiographical approaches, or wondering what Woodman “intended” or “felt”. I realise that this places me, once again, at the “cold” end of the spectrum running from hot to cold. As I said near the start of this piece, I quite like these pictures and am intrigued by them. However, they don’t really move me.

Possibly this distance from the works is a good thing providing a better place to view them than I have managed to achieve with photographs by artists – Stephen Shore, Harry Callaghan, Walker Evans say – where I have gone “Oh yeah” and felt a jolt of recognition and a desire to emulate them. We shall see…

 


2: Elina Brotherus

Elina Brotherus is a Finnish woman, who has spent a good chunk of time living in Paris. She has been active as an artist since the late 1990s. Her wikipedia entry leads you on to further entry on the Helsinki School  – graduates of the Photography department of Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. Here she is briefly summed up as: “…one of the well-known photographers coming out of the Helsinki School. She reflects upon the history of landscape painting and female nudes placing herself nude in nature. She examines self identity, sexuality, love and loneliness all at the same time.”  The course book homes in on two bodies of her work (Model Studies [2001-2005] – and Annonciation [2008-2013]). Her website – Elina Brotherus – contains examples from these and the following quote:

“…for ten years, I did other things – I was interested in painting, the way artists look at their models and how to represent this in a picture. I was using myself as a model but the photos didn’t talk about what was going on in my life. I was an image-maker, dealing with formal, visual and art-historical issues. Then I approached 40 and life got complicated and the autobiography sneaked in again. It wasn’t anything I planned but I didn’t push it back either. This is my strategy as an artist: to accept the pictures that need to happen. The resulting series Annonciation (2009-2013) and Carpe Fucking Diem (2011-2015) are different than, say, The New Painting (2000-2005) precisely because the emotion behind the scenes is the driving force of the making. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t look at them as pure pictures too. You can stay on the surface and enjoy the photographic qualities, or you can delve into the story if you want to.”

Elena Brotherus – Biography

So – you have two lots of pictures here: both sets include Brotherus herself; both sets feature Brotherus’ naked body. Both sets are completely different in their impact and their appearance.


On to the questions posed in the course book:

How do these images make you feel? The Studies make me think; Annonciation makes me feel. Of course it isn’t  – when is it ever? – as binary as that, but the distinction is there (as it is there in Brotherus’ own description of the two bodies of work). In Model Studies, Brotherus is nude: she is there to be observed and thought about not as something living, breathing and alive but an object. She is not an object of desire (there is nothing erotic or remotely pornographic about them) but rather an art-object.

The pictures make you think of other pictures – by Degas, as she bends over and washes or dries her foot; by Vermeer, as she is illuminated by the cold northern european light  coming from a window, out of the frame to camera left; by Woodman even, as she is caught reflected from behind in a badly silvered mirror – and never let you forget that this is an image made by someone, even when there is not a  pointer  – like the hose of the bulb-release that snakes out of frame towards the camera, as Brotherus’ naked foot presses down, triggering the making of the picture –  to the presence of an intermediary observer.

And then you have Annonciation. Here, there are pictures where Brotherus is no less naked, but she is definitely not nude. The lack of clothes is not re-cloaked through the prism of “art”; rather she is exposed in all her animaliness, wanting to have a baby, yet unable to bring about the circumstances where this will occur. And you feel for her, experiencing her frustration, disappointment and anger.

Repetitions – of calendars, of Brotherus sat at the same table; of her face protraying infinite sadness – show time passing, moving forward yet staying the same. The wallpaper may change, or the table cloth, but still she is not going to be a mother. You see scars on her belly, you see menstrual blood in her toilet, you see her burying her head in her hands. She is naked, exposed, individual…

But, at the same time, she is naked, exposed and individual in pictures, taken as a series, over a long period of time using a large format camera. The pictures are not the product of someone taking a quick selfie with their phone; an immense amount of work went into them No matter how much they seem to be of moments and emotions captured – they are still large format camera pictures with all the slow process that that implies. For example, there is a picture –Annonciation 17, Chalon-sur-Saône 30.03.2012 – of Brotherus curled up in the corner of a room in front of a radiator, wearing a red coat with her back to the camera; but above the radiator there are six of her “learning French” yellow post-its and there is the bulb release’s tube snaking out of the picture. The red coat stands out – chosen – among the muted browns and greens of the rest of the picture

She is making other work. She is a photographer. She is as in control of the production of these images, as much so as she is with the Model Studies pictures.  She is sad – devastated perhaps – at the failure of multiple courses of IVF, but she is still doing other things, but at the same time, this cannot have started off with the intention that it would become a record of a failed series of treatments; it must at least have begun as a record of the events leading up to the birth of a child. There is emotion here, but also craft; ultimately –  like Barthes’ awareness that everyone in a photograph he looks at is either already dead, or will die – we know that she did not conceive and that there was no annunciation, but there is still that seam of hope that this is not going to happen running through the making of the pictures, right up until the point where the series collapses into written notes and diaries and Brotherus withdraws from the book, only to reappear, holding a dachshund and giving the camera the finger in the next picture, as  the sequence Carpe Fucking Diem resumes with a bang.

The picture is titled My dog is cuter than your ugly babyI laughed. And at the same time could appreciate the emotion and the difficulty that must have underpinned it. Although she is wearing clothes, Brotherus is still in some sense “naked”.

There is always someone making these pictures, however raw they may feel to the spectator. The distance implied by this is significant, but does not erase the confessional feel of the more personal Annonciation pictures. Brotherus is exerting control over her body and the processes it is undergoing; she is distancing herself (or rather part of herself) from the pain she is going through. This process is not tamed or made neutral in any way. You know what’s going on and you know it hurts; the hurt is rendered even more painful by the way is pushed away by the labour-intensive process of their making. They are raw and cooked at the same time. I like them a lot.


3: Gillian Wearing

The pictures we’re asked to consider here are from Album, a series of photographs made in 2003, six years after Wearing won the Turner Prize. They are remarkably realistic reconstructions of pictures of members of her own family. By wearing incredibly realistic masks and carefully put together outfits in stage sets, she “becomes” her mother and her father, herself when younger (in a photo booth) and – in my view most remarkably – her brother, combing his long hair in an untidy livingroom.

 

When you look at the Album pictures online, or in a book, they seem unremarkable (just like family photographs, in fact). You peer at them, trying to see the join where the mask does not cover the eyes, that you have read about in the text that goes with the small pictures, in the book or online. And you can just about make it out. And then you notice how large the original pictures are (or you see them, huge on a gallery wall at the National Portrait Gallery or in an installation view you’ve come across.

And it suddenly makes a lot more sense (in much the same way that the full-size Ray’s a Laugh prints that were on show at Beetles and Huxley in their exhibition An Ideal for Living  (July-August 2016)  made sense when you saw how their scale turned them from reference snapshots into something else entirely) and you can see the join and you can see just how good the prosthetics are…

But none of this- even in the pictures where Wearing is disguised as her younger self – seems primarily to be about Gilian Wearing in any autobiographical sense or indeed to be the product of Gillian Wearing, as a photographer even; they seem to be much more about sculpture and representation and, in my view, are nowhere near as interesting as the later series where wearing’s eyes look out from the latex faces of earlier photographers (Sander. ??? and ???) who presumably Wearing is a fan of. They, at least seem to be about seeing and about seeing photographically, locating Wearing within a tradition of photography, rather than as part of her family line.

Where Woodman’s pictures are intriguing if ultimately opaque and Brotherus’ seem both to leave her incredibly exposed, but at the same time firmly in control of her exposure, Wearing’s set of pictures seems only to be a way of hiding the artist behind her idea and the skills of her prosthetic model-makers. There  is a definite sense of the sort of creepiness exploited by (comic) horror films, when the eyes in a portrait move as the unwitting characters walk through a chamber and the accomplishment of the surface of the pictures (in particular the one of Wearing as her brother, combing his hair in a chaotic 80s of 90s snapshot ) is remarkable,

I’m not sure what else they are about really. Certainly they lack the tension between the words written on her subjects’ placards (I’m Desperate, say or Help)  and the smoothly neutral appearance of the people holding them in the much earlier series Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-93) although you could say that the Album pictures also have a meaning that occupies the space between the surface appearance of their subject (the mask, the neutral expression) and the revelation of what lies beneath it (the eyes. the words written on the signs).


By the time she made Album, Wearing definitely had fallen into the category of an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer. Woodman (probably) falls into the same category. Brotherus on the other hand appears to be a photographer who happens also to be an artist.

Wearing is hiding (literally) behind a disguise in Album, while Woodman’s nudity hides as much as she reveals and then Brotherus is naked, exposed, raw. I feel I can recognise the Elina Brotherus presented to us by Annonciation.

Brotherus spends time in a foreign country learning French, surrounded by post-its covered in words,  not taking her clothes off and making shapes with bowls of eels. (I am aware that Woodman learnt Italian as a child, but there is still not any sense of being in a different place in the pictures Woodman made in Italy; the hermetic world they create is super-national, transcending everything except for Woodman’s artistic consciousness.)

Woodman was perhaps a (thwarted) narcissist who – had she lived – possibly have gone on to produce a considerable body of work by now, but who seems so detached from the direction art was going at the time she was studying that it is hard to see how this work would have gained any more recognition than Woodman’s did during her lifetime unless she had a dramatic rethink of what she was doing; Wearing is a sculptor who records some of her sculptures with a camera; Brotherus turns her life into bodies of work where she becomes both the ‘I’ who describes and the ‘she’ who is described.

Brotherus is the one whose work I will return to…

 


References:

  • Geoff Dyer – The Ongoing Moment (Abacus; 2007)
  • Chris Townsend – Francesca Woodman (Phaidon; 2006)
  • Mark Durden – Photography Today (Phaidon; 2014)
  • Susan Bright – Autofocus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography (The Monacelli Press; 2010)
  • Elina Brotherus – Carpe Fucking Diem (Kehrer Verlag; 2015)
  • Baker, Moran and Westerman – Performing for the Camera (Tate Publishing 2016)
  • Victor Burgin – Thinking Photography (MacMillan Press, 1982)
  • Gillian Wearing/The Observer – Private lines: Gillian Wearing’s signs – in pictures https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/04/gillian-wearing-signs-in-pictures (4/3/2012)

 

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