Essential Reading: Autofocus: The self-portrait in contemporary photography – Susan Bright

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since I started C&N back in January. Not because I’m particularly interested in self-portraiture, but because it looked to be far less ‘wordy’ than a lot of academic books, with lots of photographs to study. In actual fact, the book turned out to be written in a far more academic style than I’d anticipated, but the many images were used as examples to demonstrate the practical application of the theory, which I found invaluable.

The book is broken down quite simply into 5 chapters, each looking at the sub-genre’s of self portraiture:

  1. Autobiography
  2. Body
  3. Masquerades
  4. Studio and Album
  5. Performance

Each chapter begins with a theoretical exploration of the sub-genre, before examining several artists work within that category.

My studies to date have helped in my understanding of ‘how photographs are read’, but I still find myself easily dismissing a photograph if I just don’t ‘get it’. Throughout the book, the literature adds context to the bodies of work, helping the reader/viewer to understand the artists intention, circumstances and/or background. With this level of information, I found each image to be more revealing and this made me far less inclined to dismiss photographs out of hand. Although I really enjoy Portraiture as a genre, I find Self-Portraiture to be a little egotistical and self-serving, with the exception of Masquerade or Performance. I was hoping that the book would help me break down this prejudice, but I think it may have actually re-inforced it within some of the sub-catagories.

I felt quite a connection with the  first chapter on Autobiography because the images within struck a few chords. Although quite morbid, I often find myself wondering what, if anything, my son would remember of me if I died in the near future. What would be his understanding of who I was and what would I have left behind to help shape his understanding of who I was? These thoughts are compounded by my job and by the fact that 2 members my family have  been diagnosed with cancer this year. This could well be something that I explore in Assignment 3.

The term “Memento Mori” was something that I’d never come across until I saw Mapplethorpe, R (1998), Self Portrait (p18). This image is a prime example of where some background knowledge can greatly enhance the impact of an images meaning. Without knowing that Mapplehtorpe was terminally ill at the time of taking the photograph, it would have no autobiographical meaning. I was quite intrigued and inspired by the simple use of contrast to signify Life and Death.

Mapplethorpe, R (1988). Self Portrait (p18)

Mapplethorpe, R (1988). Self Portrait (p18)

I have mixed feelings about the work of Sam Taylor-Wood. I find her full length self-portraits to be quite bland, with overly distracting elements, yet some of her work, I find really interesting, aesthetically pleasing and artistically stimulating.

I find the photograph Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank (1993), to be very confrontational and ego-centric. It reminds me of rebellious teens lashing out at the institution in a “hey, look at me, aren’t I cool” kind of way.

Taylor-Wood, (1993). Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank.

Taylor-Wood, (1993). Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank (p38).

Later work, such as Self-Portrait in a single breasted suit with Hare, (2001) is more considered and I like Taylor-Wood’s humorous response to her illness and treatment . What I don’t get though is the choice of backdrop or the awkward pose which I find to be reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.

Taylor-Wood, S (2001), Self-Portrait in a single breasted suit with Hare

Taylor-Wood, S (2001), Self-Portrait in a single breasted suit with Hare (p39)

In stark contrast, The Self-Portrait Suspended (2004) series and Escape Artist (2008) are clean, elegant and thought provoking. Here, Taylor-Wood obscures her face, removing any sense of ego form the images. She uses herself and the idea of of elevation to communicate her feelings. I’m intrigued as to how these images were created.

Taylor-Wood, S (2004), Self-Portrait Suspended III

Taylor-Wood, S (2004), Self-Portrait Suspended III (p40)

Taylor-Wood, S (2008), Escape Artist (Pink and Red) (p41)

Taylor-Wood, S (2008), Escape Artist (Pink and Red) (p41)

The last set of images in Chapter 1 to really capture my imagination were the ones created by a collaboration known as My Little Dead Dick. What I love are the compositions and the interplay between images telling the story of a couples relationship. Each image is very simple and uncomplicated, but captures the viewers attention. As with any good story, I find myself yearning to find out what happens next!

In chapter 2, I was quite astonished to see the lengths that some artists go to for their Art. In many images the body is used quite grotesquely to shock the viewer and in others, it is merely a distant object within its surroundings. On the whole, I found it very difficult to connect with any of the images in this chapter in terms of understanding, but some intrigued me non the less.

Lyle Ashton Harris’ series Memoirs of Hadrian (2002) are easily understandable in terms of meaning, but was there any need for him to beat himslef black and blue?

And the most disturbing images are those taken by Catherine Opie over a ten year period, in which she has carved etchings into her skin (the scars from which are still visible 10 years later)! The thing is, I get Opie’s work, I find it interesting and engaging, and she gets her point across perfectly. I’m actually left wondering if she’s fit to have a child after the earlier photographs. Although I’m engaged by her work I don’t feel that I can take any inspiration from it unless i’m willing to self-harm.

After reading this book, I find Masquerade the most appealing form of Self-Portraiture. This is because it allows the Photographer to disappear, leaving just traces of himself in the image. It plays less to the ego and more to the message or subject. Within this chapter, I found the images more pleasing to look at. A lot of them had a ‘Film-Still’ style or were inspired by paintings.  They also seemed a lot less serious, allowing the photographer to be playful, introducing an element of fun into the images.

I was quite fascinated by the work of Gaüeca, probably because he uses his work to mock the cliches of the art world. His work is highly stylised with what appears to be a high production value, much like fashion or advertising work.

I was drawn to Nobody knows vermeer told me this, (2004) because of the visual repetition created through the use of digital manipulation. It reminded me of a work by Duane Michals called Things are queer which I love. Another of Gaüeca’s photographs that I really liked was Untitled, (2002). In it, text is married with image to add a layer of depth. Being a self portrait, the text works in relay with the image to speak volumes about the photographer and how he sees himself in relation to the Art world and his contemporaries.

Gaüeca (2004), Nobody knows Vermeer told me this (p130)

Gaüeca (2004), Nobody knows Vermeer told me this (p130)

Gaüeca (2002), Untitled (p131)

Gaüeca (2002), Untitled (p131)

In a similar vain to Masquerade, the final chapter, Performance, sees the photographer adopting another persona. This only differs slightly from a masquerade in that in a Performance, the photographer is acting out a specific scene, and or adopting a specific persona.

for me, the most interesting and inspiring work in this chapter was the work of Trish Morrissey and her series Front (2005-07) which I’d studied in an earlier exercise. I am quite intrigued by her exploration of the family unit, and her place within it as a mother. As a Dad myself, who grew up without the influence of my biological dad, I often wonder about my own place within the family unit and the value that I add. Again, I enjoy the complexity in the simplicity of her images, coupled with the often scenic locations and compositions.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. I’m actually disappointed that I have to send it back to the library as it would be ideal for future reference. Not only was the book highly informative in terms of the theory behind self-portraiture, but I have been able to draw some inspiration from the examples contained within.


Bright, S (2010). Autofocus: The self portrait in contemporary photography. Thames & Hudson Ltd. UK.


2 thoughts on “Essential Reading: Autofocus: The self-portrait in contemporary photography – Susan Bright

  1. Pingback: Assignment 3 – Research – Charles Latham | My Learning (B)Log – Context and Narrative

  2. Pingback: Assignment 3 – Putting yourself in the picture | My Learning (B)Log – Context and Narrative

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