Putting yourself in the picture – Project 1: Autobiographical self-portraiture – Exercise


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?

Make some notes in your learning log.

How do these images make you feel?

Francesca Woodman – The course text quotes a comment by Susan Bright (made in a book that I’m currently reading), in reference to Woodman’s work: “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, S 2010, p.25)(1). This is true in so far as, once you learn of something, you can’t unlearn it. Knowing that Woodman committed suicide at an early age influences how her work is read. Assumptions are made, even by the most objective viewer. The majority of Woodman’s self portraits are dark, moody and full of signs and signifiers that we can interpret as her state of mind (2). There are also images that , without knowing the artists fate, could quite easily be read in a less presumptuous manner, but these are a minority. It is difficult to argue with Bright as the evidence is stacked in her favour, largely due to the sheer quantity of images produced in this style and of this nature by Woodman. Her photographs largely portray her in a state of movement or obscurity, as if she were trying to hide or disappear. In other images, she is very close to the frames edge, alluding to a desire to escape(2). The surrealism of her images connotes the sense of this being a state of mind or ‘thought’ as opposed to a physical or actual notion that we can see. Of the 3 artists looked at in this section, I find her work the most intriguing, and easy to read/understand.

Elina Brotherus – The image Annunciation 14, 2012, shown as an example in the course book is quite disturbing at first glance. The setting is very bare and uncomfortable and a shadowy figure looms in the back room. Brothurus’ naked self sits almost centre stage in an uncomfortable, sad and hunched pose. It is only on closer inspection that we see the pregnancy test on the floor (hard to depict in the reproduction), and we notice that the shadowy figure is actually a picture or reflection (again, hard to tell which). The title of the image gives a lot away in terms of what the image is about and what Brotherus is trying to say. Having read Brotherus’ own explanation of the series, which gives greater context to an already powerful set of images, each of the little signifiers become more apparent. The clinical white tiles, the sense of loneliness, depression and feeling of loss. Of having given everything. This particular image is very difficult to find online. The Annunciation series does not even feature on Brothurus’ own website (4), although much of her other, very interesting work can be found on there.

Gillian Wearing – I’ve been a fan of Wearing’s for some time, having looked at her Signs series on my previous course. Initially, I felt very unimpressed when I saw the image Self Portrait as My Mother Jean Gregory, 2003, in the course book. Alone, it appears to be a very banal portrait. On further investigation, and in the context of the family album, family history and the Series where Wearing wears masks to become other family members, the whole thing becomes a lot more interesting and engaging. The images of her wearing the masks (5), with the big holes for her own eyes are quite creepy, reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter. In other images, the mask is barely noticeable, for example in Self Portrait of my Father, 2003, it is only thanks to the title that we are made aware of the self portrait. Strangely, these are photographs of other people, with her in them.

Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?

Like most questions posed in the study of Art, there is no straightforward Yes or No answer. I expect that Self Portraiture is often used to express oneself by those who are narcissistic or self indulgent (social media is a prime example), and this will come across in the images. As far as Art is concerned however, I think it all comes down to Intent and purpose. What is the reason for using yourself as the subject? Having looked at Woodman’s work, and knowing what I do about her suicide, I believe that an element of her work is a cry for help. She was indulging her own desires to be heard and to express herself, possibly because it was cathartic. I don’t get the impression that there was any narcissism in her work, in fact it is quite the opposite, i.e. self loathing. Annunciation is also self indulgent in that Brotherus is communicating her own feelings and anguish linked to a procedure which is deeply personal to her and many other women. That doesn’t mean that she’s a self indulgent person, because much of her other self portraiture is quite objective. In her work, Brotherus is an element of the photograph, and not necessarily the subject. The subject is the feeling or emotion that she is portraying. This cannot be said for Wearing, who is very much the subject of her Album series, even if she is barely visible behind the mask. As for the other 2 examples, I do not find it to be self indulgent per-se, her work is personal. That said, she is using her own personal experiences to examine wider issues in terms of family, upbringing, relationships and influences, so is she indulging the viewer or herself?

What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?

In many Nude portraits, the significance of being nude can vary from eroticism and desire to the simple study of form. In self-portraiture the significance will differ to standard portraits, as the artist becomes the subject. We are given 2 examples of Brotherus’ work. In the series Model Study, 2004, the title tells us a lot, whilst the variation in images, setting, poses etc, tell us more. In this set, Brotherus is studying herself as an artist and as a woman from an objective viewpoint. The nakedness is significant because this is an exploration of who she is, in all her guises, mentally, physically and creatively. In the series Annunciation, 2012, the significance of her nudity is more obvious thanks to the narrative. Here she is literally ‘revealing’ how she feels, and baring all. Something that cannot be easy to do given the personal nature of IVF and the feelings that she is trying to convey. The issues and feelings are pertinent to women, so gender is at the root of the problem which is signified by her obvious femininity.  The procedures that she has undergone will have left her feeling vulnerable and we rarely feel less vulnerable than when we are naked.

Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?

Absolutely, theres no doubt about it. A better question may have been: How well can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text? A lot of this depends on the ability of the outsider to read a photograph. For Joe Public, who has little to no interest in Art, or Art education, some of the photographs will not make sense, or stimulate enough interest to motivate an understanding (studium). For the average gallery goer, there are enough visual clues to generate some understanding, and in the case of Brotherus’ work, titles that work in relay with the image. How ‘much’ understanding would be variable, and without any accompanying text, or strong visual clues, the artist risks loosing some authorial control, as each viewers interpretation will be different, even if only slightly. That said, even with the accompanying text, each response will vary, even if the interpretation is the same.

In the case of Woodman’s work, it ‘works’ for me purely on an aesthetic level, and I enjoy it for that reason as well as it’s connotations. With it’s ethereal and surrealist qualities, it can be interpreted a number of ways without accompanying text, but once you understand the artists fate, there are only limited interpretations left to make.

My last thought on this matter is ‘Does it matter if it works for an outsider?’ Have these artists created this work for others? Did they always intend to exhibit it? In Brotherus’ case, the answer is probably yes, therefore it matters that she can share her pain and feelings with others. Woodman on the other hand created the majority of her images while she was a student and didn’t rise to fame until after her death. I dare say that she created these images for herself, and probably didn’t care what anyone else thought. Personally, I like to create work that others will like or enjoy. How else does a photographer make money? But if I’m going to approach photography as an Artist rather than a business man, then I should make images for myself, which express what I want to express, how I want to express it, and balls to everyone else, right?

Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?

Again, yes, but not all of them, and not in all of their works. I think that some of these images are evidence that self portraiture can be used for more than just documenting the self, but can be used to investigate wider issues. Woodman’s photography is quite personal, and I imagine that when she created it, she was addressing issues that were purely personal. Since her death, the context of that work has changed and it now addresses issues of mental health. Brotherus’ work addresses issues of gender and emotion and it could also be argued that her work serves to help other women in a similar situation, by generating a sense of understanding, letting them know that they are not alone. Wearing ‘s work is very centric, looking  at her and her family, or more specifically, her place within the family unit. That said, it also raises questions of identity, and forces the viewer to question their own identity. Is this a wider issue, yes I dare say that to some, it is.


(1) Bright, S (2010). Autofocus: The self-portrait in contemporary photography. Thames and Hudson, UK.

(2) francesca woodman [accessed 4/9/15]

(3)http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/nov/21/francesca-woodman-photographs-miro-review [accessed 4/9/15]

(4) http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/index.php [accessed 4/9/15]

(5) gillian wearing album [accessed 4/9/15]


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