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Seeing Themselves: Photographers’ Self-Portraits

February 20, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about selfies recently. The Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” the word of the year for 2013, and “Museum Selfie Day,” last month, encouraged museumgoers to take creative selfies in front of art. But what distinguishes a selfie from an artist’s self-portrait? A smartphone and a Tinder account is the easy answer, but, in general, we ask more from a self-portrait than we do from a selfie: more consideration, more composition, more psychological insight and aesthetic care. From family photographs to annual staged series and quirky snaps captured in a street windows, here is a selection of my favorite self-portraits.

Deana Lawson
, “Self-Portrait” (2012)

LAWSON: At least once a year, I make a self-portrait. It’s an occasion for the artist to construct her representation through her own medium, be it a camera or a paintbrush or what have you. It’s an opportunity to declare who you are visually and who you aspire to be. A selfie is a smaller branch of self-portraiture—quick and less considered. A self-portrait considers the interiority of the artist; it’s a moment for self-reflection, to pause and to look at yourself.
Nobuyoshi Araki
, from “Grand Photomaniac Diary” (1990-1999), courtesy of the Anton Kern Gallery, New York

CHRISTOPH GEROZISSIS (director of the Anton Kern Gallery): All of Araki’s work is a reflection of his life with the camera, his obsession with life and wanting to document all of it. Inevitably, some shots include him, but seldom as a formal self-portrait.

Youssef Nabil
, “Funfair, Self-Portrait, Paris” (2005), courtesy of the Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/Brussels

NABIL: When I left Egypt in 2003 I felt that I died. Everything had changed around me, and I was trying to start my life again, in a new place with new people. I went back to Cairo a year later, and everyone had got used to living without me; it was almost like I was a ghost, coming from the past. Then I left again. When I started to have this feeling, I began taking my self-portraits—me as a visitor everywhere I go. It is the same relation I have with my life. For me, living is about coming to a place that is not yours, then having to leave.
Jun Ahn
, “Self-Portrait” (2008)/Courtesy Christophe Guye Galerie, Zürich

AUN: This image was taken at the apartment where I lived for about six years, while I was in graduate school for photography, in New York. I consider the elimination of context the most fascinating aspect of a photographic image. For me, photography is the reality and the fantasy, the truth and the fiction, all at the same time. What I wish to discover through photography is the invisible moment, the invisible structure, and hidden beauty of a world that only can be seen with the camera.
Robert Mapplethorpe
, “Self-Portrait” (l975), © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, courtesy of the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

SEAN KELLY (owner of the Sean Kelly Gallery): While Robert Mapplethorpe produced relatively few self-portraits in his tragically short career, what unites them—from the innocent vitality of this image to his last self-portrait, when he was dying of AIDS—is a searing honesty. Robert’s self portraits are direct, and they engage the viewer in a very powerful manner. He photographed himself in a number of different guises, expressing many different facets of his life and preoccupations, but in the end it is the fearlessness of his gaze, as he stares out at us, that transcends time and categorization.
SelfPortrait-04.jpgHelmut Newton, “Self-Portrait with Wife and Models, Vogue Studio Paris” (1981), courtesy of the Helmut Newton Estate.
MATTHIAS HARDER (curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation): This medium-format photograph, taken with a twin-lens reflex camera, unites the three most important genres of Helmut Newton’s work: fashion, nudes, and portraiture. Here, we can see the photographer at work: he stands with his camera facing a mirror, while in front of him stands a nude female model, who can be seen both from the front and the back. To the right sits Newton’s wife, June, who seems to watch over the scene like a film director.
SelfPortrait-05.jpgJohn Arsenault, “Italian Stallion” (2000), courtesy of ClampArt, New York.
ARSENAULT: My work is a visual diary, and I’ve been capturing self-portraits for the past twenty years. I discover an environment and figure out a way to place myself in it. Sometimes, the process is quick and spontaneous, like “Italian Stallion,” which was taken in Tuscany, Italy. My shadow splayed across the lying figure creates my self-portrait. My work is a time line of my life. It’s an ongoing process, and I like to think of it as one continuous body of work. When I’m capturing a self-portrait, I’m exploring facets of my personal relationships, my sexuality, and my identity (often poking fun at myself).
SelfPortrait-10.jpgMickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward (2006), courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York
THOMAS: Portraiture is a big part of my art, and very personal, as I often paint friends and family. But, before I had anyone pose for me, I made self-portraits to understand the ideas of the artifice and dressing up, as many young girls learn by emulating their mothers.
SelfPortrait-11.jpgDanny Lyon, “Self-Portrait, New York City” (1969), © Magnum Photos, courtesy of the Whitney Museum, New York and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zürich
LYON: It is not actually possible for me to photograph myself, as empathy, the quality that drives my work, can only be felt with another human, not with myself. This is a true document and an accident, to boot, as no one is looking through the viewfinder. The only real thing in it is my shoulder and the back of my face, which, again, is by accident, caught directly in front of the lens, creating a foreground, and the strange bathroom, decorated with children’s decals. A work of narcissism, a record of the person I was pretending to be forty-three years ago, and here taken out of context, as it was originally published, against a portrait of someone making love in a mirror.
SelfPortrait-07.jpgVivian Maier, “Self-Portrait (1956), Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery
FRANCES VIGNOLA (of the Howard Greenberg Gallery): Vivian Maier made more than a hundred and fifty thousand exposures in her lifetime, yet her photographs remained unseen until John Maloof, a Chicago historian, discovered her work, in 2007. She was intensely private—very few people even knew that she was a photographer, including some of the families she worked for as a nanny. Self-portraits, made primarily between the nineteen-fifties and seventies, are a continuous thread throughout Maier’s work. They form a visual diary, recording her presence in time and place, as well as illustrating her progression as an artist. In Maier’s practice, there was no concern for audience—rather, only an extraordinary drive to be lost in the act of photographing and the personal compulsion for the images to be made.
SelfPortrait-08.jpgTarek Al Ghoussein, “Untitled 2” (2003) from the series “Self-Portrait,” courtesy Taymour Grahne Gallery.
AL GHOUSSEIN: This image was made along the Dead Sea in Jordan. It was the first time I ever saw Palestine. The “Self-Portrait” series is a commentary on contemporary Western-media representations of the Palestinian as terrorist. This project started as a result of my growing frustration with the way in which the Palestinians and other Arabs were being (mis)represented in the Western media. I choose locations in much the same way a film director does; I move between abstraction and the specific circumstances found in particular places.
SelfPortrait-13.jpgAlec Soth, From the series “Broken Manual” (2009), courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York
SOTH: I’ve never been comfortable photographing people I know, myself included. I guess I prefer the mystery of strangers. Nevertheless, while working on a project about the desire to run away from society, I felt compelled to make a self-portrait. But, afterward, I felt equally compelled to destroy this image. After pixellating my face, I took a poster-size printout to a gun range and shot at it with a .45. I’ve recently coined a term for this kind of picture on Instagram: I call it the “unselfie.”
SelfPortrait-12.jpgWeegee (late 1930s), photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
BRIAN WALLIS (chief curator, International Center of Photography): The ultimate police photographer, Weegee often included himself in crime-scene photographs, either as an anonymous witness or as an on-the-spot photojournalist. He lived across the street from New York City’s Lower East Side police headquarters, had access to cops and jails, and claimed that he had covered more than five thousand murders—he said, famously, “Murder is my business.” This is an early image, from around 1936, of Weegee posing inside the patrol wagon used to transport criminals. Although he photographed celebrities from Franklin Roosevelt to Marilyn Monroe, Weegee always seemed to prefer his own image. The Weegee Archive at the International Center of Photography has more than fifteen hundred self-portraits, ranging from the early nineteen-thirties until just before his death, in 1968.
SelfPortrait-18.jpgFrancesca Woodman, “About Being My Model, Providence, Rhode Island” (1976), courtesy of George and Betty Woodman, the estate of Francesca Woodman, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
KATARINA JERINIC (curator of the estate of Francesca Woodman): A self-portrait can be a mask to hide behind, or it can reveal some aspect or dramatization of the artist. When looking at Francesca Woodman’s photographs, people tend to assume that the woman in the image is Francesca herself, both Francesca the model and Francesca the flesh-and-blood woman. Often—quite literally in this picture, less obviously in others—friends stand in for, and become, her. Perhaps they and she, in turn, become the character of “Francesca”: a construction of props, spaces, and images.
SelfPortrait-09.jpgSally Mann, “Self-Portrait” (1973), courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zürich
MANN: I took this in 1973 or so, when Larry and I were house-sitting for someone rich enough to have a J. C. Penney catalogue and a big mirror. They also had insulation and central heat in their house, which encouraged me to drop my sweater to reveal my long johns. I look a bit fraught, but that’s because I hadn’t been out of that sweater—which was wool; fleece hadn’t been invented—in weeks.
SelfPortrait-17.jpgCarrie Mae Weems, “Untitled (DIA Foundation)” (2005), courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
WEEMS: In 2005, I was commissioned to produce a body of work in Beacon, New York, a city along the Hudson which at the time was in the throes of profound social and economic change. My project was a three-year-long project called “The Record Shop,” where I opened a record store and invited both long-time residents of Beacon and new arrivals to record their history or their sense of place. I also made photographs of every building along the main street of Beacon each year for three years, to document the changes that were taking place in the city. This particular photograph was made at Dia Beacon just after its opening. While I am the subject in the photograph, it is not a self-portrait. My body is a stand-in for every body.
SelfPortrait-20.jpgAlex Wein, “King and Queen’s Seat, Rocks, Maryland” (2012)
WEIN: This photograph is from an ongoing series of images titled “Headstands,” which began in 2011, when I drove from San Francisco to Baltimore. The most challenging part of making this work was performing in front of the lens while directing from behind it. With a new project comes a new approach to making an image. For this project, my primary focus was the land, and then I would figure out where I would place myself into the composition. Unlike taking a portrait with the goal of capturing an identity,” Headstands” is a more simplified concept, which uses humor and adventure with a precarious nature.
SelfPortrait-19.jpgLee Friedlander, “Haverstraw, New York” (1966), courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
RICHARD BENSON (from the afterword to “Lee Friedlander: In the Picture: Self-Portraits 1958-2011”: I believe this string of self-portraits turned into a lifelong exploration because Lee saw very soon that his pictures were records of change—in himself, in the landscapes he was photographing, and in the friends and family he pulled into the frame.
SelfPortrait-16.jpgIlse Bing, “Self-Portrait with Leica” (1931), © estate of Ilse Bing, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zürich
MICHAEL MATTIS, (a collector and copyright holder for Ilse Bing, text adapted from wall text for “Paris Night & Day: Photography between the Wars,” at Boston College’s McMullen Museum, on view through June 8th): Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Frankfurt, Ilse Bing studied mathematics and art history before picking up a camera and launching a photographic career that would last for three decades. “Self-Portrait with Leica” is Bing’s best-known photograph. With its perfectly positioned mirror capturing a photographer at the moment of artistic conception, it is both a personal manifesto and a touchstone of this artistically fertile era—an icon of modernist French photography.
SelfPortrait-06.jpgJen Davis, “Untitled No. 40” (2011), courtesy of Lee Marks Fine Art, IN and ClampArt, New York
DAVIS: “Untitled No. 40” is part of an ongoing series of self-portraits. Through the act of photographing, I invite the viewer into the past eleven years of my private life, exploring the vulnerabilities that I carry, associated with a lifelong struggle with my body, feelings of isolation, the battle to recognize beauty, a quest for intimacy, and sense of acceptance. As I photograph myself, it helps me to think of the camera as a third party, creating a physical distance between the camera and myself, and an emotional distance between myself and the person being photographed. I was creating a character whom I didn’t necessarily know.
SelfPortrait-14.jpgPieter Hugo, “Pieter and Sophia Hugo at Home in Cape Town” (2010), from the series “Kin,” courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, and and Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town
HUGO: I approach photographing myself in a very similar fashion to how I approach photographing someone else. I am looking for the same agency and energy in a self-portrait that I would expect from a “normal” one. I want the subject to hold the viewer and to demand their attention. All portraits are, in some way, self-portraits
SelfPortrait-15.jpgErwin Blumenfeld, “Self-Portrait” (circa 1932), © estate of Erwin Blumenfeld, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zürich
NADIA BLUMENFLED (Erwin’s granddaughter): Blumenfeld was an avid experimenter in photography, and one of his areas of experimentation was self-portraits. In mirrors, in reflections, even, once, as giving birth to a woman. This is a rare instance of a self-portrait with his family. There is his wife, Lena, his daughter Lisette, and in the foreground, his son Heinz, my father. It was taken at their home, in Holland, at a time when he still had a leather-goods shop in Amsterdam but was starting to do photography professionally.
Jamel Shabazz
, “Reconnecting with the Past” (2012)

SHABAZZ: This photograph was made on Orchard and Delancey Streets, a historic shopping district that I have been photographing since 1980. I often look for interesting backdrops to enhance the over-all dynamics of the image. For this particular photo, the location and the vintage leather jackets, from the late seventies and early eighties, create the perfect atmosphere, which allowed me to include a very important personal history that reflects both my era and my personality.


Seeing Themselves: Photographers’ Self-Portraits : The New Yorker.