Photography: Controversy, Art & Innovation



Self-portrait by Florence Vandamm


Self-portrait with Leica by Otto Umbehr, 1952

“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” –Susan Sontag


Portrait in the Forest by Jonathan Eger

While the invention of the camera and our ability to take photographs brought about numerous advantages, it also resulted in some unexpected developments.  The art of photography made a significant impact on the world from the moment of its inception, but it has also altered the way we view ourselves.  As long as photography has been in existence, people have utilized this art form to take photos of themselves.  While this sounds like an innocuous activity, the proliferation of “selfies” and the absorption of this descriptive term into accepted English, shows that there is more to this evolution in picture taking than meets the eye.


Self-portrait with my camera by Fred Boissonas, 1900


Self-portrait by Zoe Heller

When the camera first became popular and photography became widespread, it had stunning effects on the art world.  Suddenly, the primary purpose of painting, which had been the representation of events and people from life, became nullified.  After all, no matter how realistically one can paint a scene, it cannot compare to a photograph which ostensibly provides an exact reproduction.  However, instead of putting thousands of painters out of work, photography actually provided a reason for greater experimentation in art.


Five way portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1917

1989.55.3 001

Self-portrait by Man Ray, 1932

Prior to the invention of photography, the world of painting was slow to change and evolve.  With this technological innovation, art changed as a reaction to it.  Artists were no longer bound to the idea of copying what they saw or providing documentation of people and events, and as a result, new movements developed and advancements occurred.  In addition, many painters made use of this new method of creation and incorporated it into their work.  If the new technology of photography had not compelled painters to alter their methods and approach, perhaps painting would have ceased evolving as an art form.  Instead, there were a greater number of innovations and movements recorded in the 80 years after the invention of the camera than in several previous centuries.


Self-portrait by Lee Friedlander, 1960


Self-portrait by Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, 1914

Photographers also faced great criticism as many people were slow to accept photography as a true art form.  When photography arrived on the scene, many photographers tried to duplicate fine art styles in an attempt to prove that photography was a valid art form as it could emulate already accepted styles of art.  While this received a modicum of success, it was short-lived as other photographers rebelled against this idea of limiting the art form to glorified imitations.  Due to the ease with which anyone could obtain a camera and take pictures, the overriding popularity of this novel art soon won out over critics.  Within a short period of time, photography found its footing and established itself as a verifiable art.


Self-portrait by Sebastien Del Grosso


Self-portrait in a distorted mirror by Eve Arnold, 1950

From the beginning, photographers felt a great need to innovate and push the boundaries to show what their field was capable of creating.  Many photographers experimented with shadows and lighting, while others worked with mirrors and angles and created innovative darkroom techniques to further alter their work.  As with painting, many photographers chose to create portraits of themselves.  Often times these photographs served as advertisements or provided photographers with a subject for experimentation.


Self-portrait by Helena Almeida



Self-portrait in mirrors by Ilse Bing, 1931

It is quite interesting that photography was first identified as a means to factually reproduce people, places and events, yet this defining characteristic is far from the truth.  Photography has always existed as a contradiction.  While it can reproduce an image and capture it in time, the manipulation of photographs has occurred from its inception.  In addition, a photograph is not only altered within the darkroom or on a computer screen.  A photograph is a composition created by the photographer and one image may only portray one portion of a scene.  As such, we cannot rely on a mere photograph to impart absolute truth and complete understanding of the image being captured.  Subjects in photographs are also not completely factual.  The people viewed in a photograph are constructions; they are what the photographer wants us to see.   Regardless of the photographer’s intentions and how faithfully he wants to reproduce an image, it cannot be a true representation as it will always be done from the photographer’s own perspective.


Self-portrait by André Kertész, 1927

Four Self Portraits - 05.3.81 1990 by Richard Hamilton 1922-2011

Four Self-Portraits by Richard Hamilton, 1990

This aspect of photography is most obvious in the realm of self-portraiture.  The earliest self-portraits depicted a break with the constraints placed on art in the past.  This was shown in the smallest of movements: the frontal pose.  Within painting, self-portraits were typically done with the figure angled and often avoiding direct eye contact with the viewer.  In contrast, photographic self-portraits typically featured the photographer in a full frontal pose, staring directly out of the frame.  This small adjustment spoke volumes, as it showed that photography would not be confined by outdated ideals, and the artist would not show deference to the viewer.  Exposure of the human body was also an area of great interest as revealing the true physical form instead of a painted representation was equivalent to stripping off all of the restrictions of the past.

q16The Photojournalist by Andreas Feininger, 1955

Self Portrait 1981, printed 1992 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

Self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1981

Despite the blatant stance and bold subject matter which seemed to define photography as a true and factual art form, in reality, this was not the case.  Instead, self-portraiture was a realm of artificial construction and photographers utilized their compositions to artfully share only what they wished.  The distinction actually being made was that through self-portraiture, artists had complete control over their image and how they wished to disperse information about themselves.  According to Susan Bright, author of Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Society, these methods of self-portrayal can actually be divided into several broad, yet overlapping, categories.  In the research for her book, Bright classified self-portraits as autobiographical, focusing on the body, masquerade, studio and album work, or performance.


Self-portrait by Cristina Otero


Self-portrait by Irving Penn

In the early years of self-portraiture, photographers had to incorporate the camera itself into their image.  Viewing these photographs gives insight into the photographer and how he chooses to depict himself.  Some artists place the camera over their faces, obscuring their identity or allowing the camera to represent them.  It is almost as if the two are inseparable and the photographer has no identity without this necessary piece of equipment.  Others put themselves beside the camera, showing that they are two separate, but equal entities.  Some almost appear to caress the camera, as if it were a loved one, while others depict it as a necessary tool.  When they opt not to look directly at the viewer, they may choose to focus their gaze on the camera itself.  This stance may suggest that the photographer finds the camera to be a more important focal point, and it may actually show his deference to this tool which is indispensable to the art form.


Self-portrait by Nobuyoshi Araki


Self-portrait by Claude Cahun, 1927

Another interesting aspect of self-portraiture is the construction of the self through alterations in appearance.  The creation of the self is not limited to costumes or attitudes; it also exists on the more primal level of gender construction.  Many photographers have depicted themselves as an opposite gender, or they have downplayed their gender to show that this societal construction does not define them as a person.  Playing with one’s representation as female or male speaks to the abilities that photography offers to resist limitations placed on self-identification by society.


Self-portrait by Andy Warhol


Self-portrait by Delaney Allens

In addition, the art of photography is a tool which allows artists to portray themselves in any form that they can imagine.  Artists are also free to further alter their depictions of themselves as they can create as many self-portraits as they want.  Furthermore, self-portraiture allows artists to share private sides of themselves that the public may not be aware of.  For example, some photographers have used their images to reveal a sensual side or to spread light on issues such as domestic abuse. Regardless of the image that a photographer wants to create of himself, one overriding fact remains true: the photographer has complete control over his portrayal of himself.


Self-portrait by Vivian Maier, 1955


Self-portrait by Ed der Elsken, 1954

However, technology has recently intervened in the world of photography, as it has with many other art forms throughout history.  Typically, when an invention or innovation is created, it may have an adverse effect on the field or area that it impacts.  As such, that area must evolve and change or cease to exist in the face of the new innovation.  This has occurred again recently with the technological advances made in cameras, digital photography, and the digital manipulation of photographs.  Today the most common method of photography is the digital camera, and once photos are uploaded onto a computer, they can be easily altered to create whatever image the photographer has in mind.


Horned self-portrait by Gonzalo Bénard

Self-Portrait on the train, Germany 1992 by Nan Goldin born 1953

Self-portrait on the train by Nan Goldin, 1992

This has been a significant achievement with a great many benefits, but it has also raised many issues about the reliability of photography as a representation of reality.  Prior to these technological advancements, manipulation of photographs was done, but it was more difficult and time-consuming and often easily identified.  As a result, people relied on photographs as a record of a truth.  Now, this fallacious belief can no longer be sustained in light of the extensive and widely accepted alterations made to photographs in all areas.

Got a Salmon On #3 1997 by Sarah Lucas born 1962

Got a Salmon on #3 by Sarah Lucas, 1997


Self-Portrait with Camera by Peter Keetman, 1950

For photographers working in the medium as an art form, technology has finally given them a means to create images seemingly without limit.  We can see this impact in an examination of the current styles of self-portraits being created.  Many of them inhabit the realm of the fantastical, and instead of just an image of the photographer, the current trend seems to be a creation of the self as a concept.  As such, the examples of self-portraiture embody an endless realm of ideas and themes.  While there are numerous innovative creations, the genre is almost reaching a saturation point.  It feels as if the reason for creating a self-portrait has been lost and instead photographers are only focused on creating images that are more distinctive than the ones that came before.

Body Techniques (after Parallel Stress, Dennis Oppenheim,1970) 2007 by Carey Young born 1970

Body Techniques (After Parallel Stress, Dennis Oppenheim, 1970) by Carey Young, 2007


Self-portrait by Vivian Maier

With the addition of selfies to the mix, and after being subjected to countless pictures of people reflected in bathroom mirrors, one must wonder if the self-portrait has arrived at a stasis.  We appear to have reached the apex of self-interest and egotism, while art has been thrown by the wayside.  The sheer numbers of selfies created on a daily basis seems to nullify the significance of true photographic self-portraits.  In addition, manipulation of images has become so basic that one need not have any specialized photographic knowledge to alter their own pictures.

Monument Valley (Grand Scale) 1995-97 by Tracey Emin born 1963

Monument Valley (Grand Scale) by Tracy Emin, 1995-97

Self-Portrait, Three Times, 24.1.90 1990 by Gerhard Richter born 1932Self-portrait three times by Gerhard Richter, 1990

Whether self-portraits have anything left to offer remains to be seen, and it is difficult to ascertain what the future will hold for photography and the realm of self-portraiture.  Nonetheless, as photography is a form of technology, innovations and advancements are sure to aid in its evolution.  As Bauhaus theorist László Moholy-Nagy said in 1925 when speaking of the camera, “The engineer has the machine in his hands, satisfying immediate needs.  But basically much more: he is the initiator of the new stratum of society, the paver of the way for the future.”


Self-portrait by Robert Doisneau, 1947


The Halsman Family, 1950


Self-portrait by Weegee, 1950

Happy 1980 by Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942

Happy by Gilbert and George, 1980


Self-portraits by Zhang Huan

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