does an artist/ photographer need to create or take self- portraits?
of the important genres of art is portraiture. The artist depicts a person, where
the face and expression are predominant. Often, these persons are the artists
recently as the technology improved, people use small digital cameras or even
their smart phones and take photos of themselves which, in most of the cases,
they share online through social networks.
But how all these started? When did people
start taking images of themselves or start depicting themselves and more important
why has somebody done that? Is it a simple act of taking a photo or it is
something deeper? Is it an act of self awareness or a narcissistic act?
tradition of self depiction
of the Self is not something new (Cumming, 2009),
(Dybisz, 2011), (Collins), (Fernández). The first self portraits date
back to Ancient Egypt and Greece. Historic evidence shows that Pharaohs carved
their faces and bodies in their tombs. Later, in the middle ages the architects
of great cathedrals included their own likeliness in the sculpted decoration.
portraiture though become more popular with the great painters of the
Renaissance from the around the 14th to 17th century. Famous examples of these
are Albrecht Dürer (1471- 1528), Rembrandt (1606- 1669) and Leonardo Da Vinci
(1452- 1519). Then in more recent years the painters did not aim to accurate
depict themselves but more try to heal or express themselves through paintings.
Famous painters of the 19th and 20th century who produce self-portraits are
Gustave Courbet (1819- 1877), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1590), Edward Munch (1863-1944),
Picasso (1881-1973) and Salvador Dali (1904-1989). The invention of photography
gave another tool to the artists to depict themselves.
first photographic self portraits (Bright, 2010, p.8)
date back to around 1800. As photography required “less skills” than
the painting, it came with no surprise
that the photographers/ artists point the camera to themselves. Andy Warhol (1928- 1987) most famous for his
paintings and prints also used photography to an experimental degree in his
self portraiture (Dybisz, 2011, p. 12).
the most famous artist for her photographic self portraits is Cindy Sherman (b.
1954) who explored various identities and characters (Dybisz,
2011, p. 12).
Then more recently the invention of digital
photography and internet allow larger numbers of photographers to take self
portraits. In most of the cases their audience where their friends and those
who noticed their websites.
cameras are part of the mobile phones. This fact with the low cost of mobile
internet data and the creation of social networks like facebook, twitter and
instagram make the action of taking a photo of oneself and the online sharing
of it, part of the daily routine of some people. These photos are not
considered anymore pieces of art. It is important to note though that still
there are contemporary photographers who use good quality DSLR cameras and
produce good quality self- portraits.
As we can see from this short
history of the self portraiture as the time past the art also followed the
technological evolution of other parts of life.
The first self- portraits were sculptures,
followed by paintings, photos (from film to digital) and even videos. It is
also interesting that even the terminology used of the depictions of the self
by an artist/ person followed this technological evolution. From calling them
“pictures of likeness of the artist by their hands” (Cumming, 2009, p.84) to portraits of the
self, self- portraits and the recently adopted “selfie” (Oxford
Dictionaries Blog, 2013), (Oxford Dictionaries Online).
The subjects of the self-portraits
also change through the time, although the Self is and was present and an
important part. From religious subjects to imaginary worlds and more recently
to simply parts of the body (for example female breasts or bottom). It is also
interesting that in photography we have more female artist compared to
painting. Possibly this is connected with the change of the position of the
woman in the society in general in the most recent years. Also, self-
portraiture allowed female artists a certain amount of freedom from the
constraining traditional artistic representations, in which women were so often
muses for men (Bright, 2010, p.15).
main question is why people do so, why they spent hours to create an image of
their own likeness with brushes or paint surrealistic portraits with features
of themselves? And finally, why the photographer choose to be in both sides of
the camera when he can easier take portraits of other people, is there a deeper
reason for that? Do the artists cover some other needs with that? Do these
needs/ motives change over the time as the art itself evolve?
order to answer this questions I will try to look in the work and thoughts of
some artists who practise self portraiture, mainly contemporary photographers.
I will try to explore what the psychiatrists say about the “selfies”
people take. Finally, in the conclusion, I will also speak about my own
experience, how I used photography as a therapeutic tool.
possibly portrayed themselves in huge dimensions for the same reasons they
build the huge pyramids as their own tombs, to show their power and glory.
Renaissance painters produce self- portraits, possibly to sell them or to show
their skills to potential clients (Cumming, 2009).
One reason photographers take self portraits
is convenience (Dybisz, 2011, p.20). They have
themselves available any time they want to take a portrait. They do not have to
search for models. They do not need to direct others, and they do not have to
describe/ express what they have in their mind. Also photographers sometimes
“showcase” their skills to potential clients by posting/ sharing
their work to social networks. But for most photographers who take self-
portraits these are not the only reasons. As Cindy Sherman said (Cumming, 2009,
p.257), spending some time when she was moody or depressed, turning herself to
somebody else has a cathartic effect on her. And Sherman is not alone here.
Gorodinski (Dybisz, 2011, p.130- 137) inspired
by her emotions, usually her melancholy to take her autobiographical self-
portraits. This process is pain relieving for her and it is her way to let it
out. For Joanne Ratkowski (Dybisz, 2011, p.122- 129) taking
self portraits is a kind of “photo-therapy”. Being a psychologist,
her photographic work is a influenced by her profession. The self- portraits
she take are a documentation of her own psyche, a visual personal journal,
where she often tries to explore themes related to personal painful overcomings.
photographers create an alter ego of themselves, with elements of their
personality in their self-portraits. Rossina Bossio (Dybisz,
2011, p.106-113) acts and plays roles in front of the camera. She
creates her own stage. Those characters are never completely separate from
herself and always linked to her most private emotions and life experiences.
She tries to examine in her work other possible identities of women, she tries
to celebrate body and sexuality because as a child and adolescent she had to
denied them (protestant upbringing, catholic school for girls).
Jacobsen (Dybisz, 2011, p.138- 145), in his
self portraits creates a surreal word he dreams about, and that is a special
way to express his personal feeling and experiences. Taking self portraits make
him feel freer than ever, giving him a sense of inner balance. For him, also
the character in the self- portraits is an alter ego, an exaggerated
representation, but one that is build up from fragments of his own personality.
Charles Latham (Bright, 2010, p.26-27), the
alter ego and self are present in the same image (two photos combined in one
image). Initially, after breaking up from a relationship, he created a series of photos that showed him
physically harming himself. Those alarmed his friends when they were posted
online. In order to continue exploring himself and continue to investigate the
feelings and issues he explored in the initial series in a more controlled way, he invented Cyrus.
Cyrus is an imaginary friend, alter ego and personal demon, named after his
middle name, something he is ashamed of and has been a long kept secret.
Pehrsson (Dybisz, 2011, p.98- 105) makes self
portraits simply because she wants to capture moments and different stages of
her mind. She also included her partner in her self- portraits and that helped
her to feel closer to him. Latoya Ruby Frazier (Bright,
2010, p.30- 33), also improve the relationship and connection with her
mother and grandmother by including them in her self- portraits.
also took self portraits to document stages or changes in their lives and
document how they change as the time passed. Noah Kalina (Dybisz, 2011, p.114- 121) has been amazed how much
his appearance have changed over the course of few years, after going through a
shoebox with photographs from his early teenage years. That inspired him to
take a photo of himself everyday for the rest of his life.
Malerie Marder (Bright,
2010, p.68- 69) attempted to capture her reaction on the ongoing
physical changes, while she was pregnant by taking one self- portrait for each
of the nine months of the gestation.
Sam Taylor- Wood (Bright,
2010, p.38- 41), made self portraits which act as markers for events and
periods of transition in her life. Few examples, she took one shortly after
graduated from art school and started working as night club manager, one taken
after she had a mastectomy as a result of a second battle with cancer and
another one when she moved to a new studio.
Fox (Bright, 2010, p.44- 45), took self
portraits where she documents herself progressively becoming more and more
drunk. She uses the camera as a therapeutic tool to document her
over-indulgences and to remind herself later not to go to the extremes.
We started from the painters of the
past, whose painting were admired mainly by the visitors of the art galleries
or museums or the visitors of the houses of the wealthy people who are and were
able to buy them. Then the contemporary photographers, whose audience was
mainly from their friends and followers in the social network. Finally, today
everybody is able to take a photo of themselves using their smart phone or web
camera and post them to the social networks making them accessible to
everybody. Even a new world has been used for this kind of photo the popular-
Scientist found that people take
selfies for reasons different from those the artists have done either now or
the past. They connected the selfies (Arata, 2015), (Briggs
2014), (Graham, 2014), (Keating, 2014) to
body image issues, narcissism (Singal, 2015), mental illness, addiction and
suicide. In one case, a man diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, became
suicidal due to his addiction to taking selfies (The Huffington Post, 2014), (Savastio,
portraiture is not a simple act of taking a photo of the self, but there is
something deeper on it. In many cases contemporary photographers take self
portraits to express themselves and/ or for therapeutic reasons. This is in
agreement with my own photographic practise.
the past, when I was in the early stage of depression or high levels of anxiety
(but with counselling managed to overcome it before become depressed), I also
used self portraiture as a therapeutic tool, and was taking a series of self-
portraits wearing masks to cover my face and possibly re-discover myself.
Looking back to it, I think it was also partially self- humiliation, with the
worst example when I put myself in a rubbish bag and place me by the rubbish
bin in the kitchen wearing a white mask. However, when I start feeling better I
start taking series of self-portraits with no masks and not so negative
concepts. Now, I am not so often taking self- portraits but when I do so it is
more like a need to picture myself in that stage of my life, a need to express
how I am feeling about that stage of my life.
of the people do not think like me or the photographers/ artists for which
self- portraiture is and was a way to express themselves, their thought and
feelings. For most people, a “selfie” is a capturing of a moment, a
statement of look to what I am doing, where and with whom, or a way of acting
and sharing some fake moments for your “friends” to feel jealous of
you, but not for the sake of art, just for the Ego part of the self.