Self-portraiture always at some level deals with identity. Cindy Sherman’s photographs address female identity. For example in the series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (begun 1977) she appears in each picture in a different guise, as a character from a melodramatic film (Sherman, 2003) (see fig. 1 and 2.). These photographs are:
in some sense self-portraits, but they are paradoxical ones. Much of the critical effect of Sherman’s Film Stills results from her presence in these staged scenes, because in each picture she appears as a different character. Feminists have suggested that there is no real Sherman to be found beneath these pictures: the image of femininity is all there is (Edwards, 2006: 65).
As Laura Cumming points out Sherman was not the first photographic artist to use herself as medium as well as model and instances the Countess de Castiglione (b. 1837), Claude Cahun (b.1894) and the highly celebrated 19th century French Impressionist painter and sculpture Edward Degas (b. 1834):
Photography … offers self-portraitists a chance to see themselves as others see them without the inevitable self-consciousness of looking in a mirror. But even from its earliest days it has been used to challenge this supposed objectivity. Degas’s self-portraits, made at night using an elementary Eastman Kodak, are full of doubt and unease, redoubled by photographing himself in a mirror, as if he already foresaw, even in the nineteenth century, that the camera could be used to twist reality, doctor the record, suggest complexities untold … (Cumming, 2009: 250).
A discussion of one of Degas’s photographs ‘Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Stéphane Mallarmé’ (see fig.3.) suggests that:
By their attachment to darkness, Degas’s photographs involve themselves in the circle of power and powerlessness that circumscribes photography.
More than Degas’s proper photographic self-portraits, Renoir and Mallarme lays a claim to that circle of light and blindness, dominance and passivity. One more or less contemporary description of it provides us with a convenient laundry list of its contents: “Near a large mirror we see Mallarme leaning against the wall, and Renoir seated on a sofa facing us. In the mirror, in the state of phantoms, Degas and his apparatus, Mine. and Mlle. Mallarme can be made out.” Valery also described the photograph’s making: “This photograph was given to me by Degas, whose apparatus and phantom can be seen in the mirror. Mallarme is standing near Renoir, who is seated on the sofa. Degas has inflicted on them a pose of fifteen minutes in the light of nine gas lamps…. In the mirror can be seen the shadows of Mine. Mallarme and her daughter.” In different order, both of these descriptions of the photograph establish the following: Renoir and Mallarme (the men) in front of the mirror; Degas and his apparatus in the mirror as phantoms; Mine. and Mlle. Mallarme (the women) in the mirror with him as shadows; and finally the image of time (fifteen long minutes of photographic posing), a barrage of light (nine gas lamps) counteracting conditions of dimness, and the directorial Degas subjecting his sitters to his vision-inflicting their poses on them (Armstrong, 1988) .
Armstrong draws attention to the use of the words ‘shadow’ and ‘phantom’ in the description of the two women in the photograph:
The photograph itself presents them as such, its juxtaposition of the reflections in the mirror with the figures of Renoir and Mallarme (whose images by contrast are clearly delineated) helps to underline the spectral, blurred quality of the mechanical and human inhabitants of the mirror. The domain of the mirror is the territory not only of the apparatus itself but of its effects as well: reflection, light and dark, and finally disembodiment — both the human reflections and the apparatus are described as ghosts. This image defines photography as both specular and spectral (Armstrong, 1988).
Armstrong’s further commentary on the photograph ‘Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Stéphane Mallarmé’ is very relevant to the ideas behind my attempt at producing a self-portrait:
Let us consider some of the ways in which photography is like the mirror. As the photograph of Renoir and Mallarme seems to suggest, photography is the mirror image fixed; no longer merely an imitation of the facture-less, automatic doubling of the mirror, photography is, rather, the mirror’s equivalent in fixed form. Unlike painting, photography is unavoidably a representational medium — no matter how “abstract” photographs may look, they can never be abstract, for they must always re-present something; hence, like Echo’s voice and Narcissus’ reflection, they must always be a double of the thing that they represent, a partial aspect split off from the thing itself. Insofar as representation and the self are equivalent, photography must implicate the self in the divisions of representation. Certainly Renoir and Mallarme’ embeds the self at the very heart of the mirror and its process of representation. And Degas’s other photographs insist on the divided and duplicated self as the function of the photograph by taking up the process of internal division and multiplication seen in his pastels of dancers and the like, underlining that process as the product of the camera’s effects of reversal and replication (Armstrong, 1988).
In this passage is what will be a central idea of my self-portrait, an insistence on “the divided and duplicated self as the function of the photograph by taking up the process of internal division and multiplication”.
Armstrong, Carol (1988) ‘Reflections on the Mirror: Painting, Photography, and the Self-Portraits of Edgar Degas’ In: Representations 22, pp. 108-141
Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Sherman, Cindy (2003) Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Sherman, Cindy (1980) Untitled Film Still #81. At: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/lib/uploads/G02A81Untitled-Film-Still-81.1980_large-331×475.jpg (Accessed on: 15.02.15)
Figure 2. Sherman, Cindy (1979) Untitled Film Still #26. At: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/lib/uploads/G02A26Untitled-Film-Still-26.1979_large-704×475.jpg (Accessed on: 15.02.15)
Figure 3. Degas, Edward (1895) Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Stéphane Mallarmé [Gelatin silver print] At: http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/065/w500h420/CRI_62065.jpg (Accessed on: 15.02.15)