10 Aug, 2010

Photography’s searching self

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Since the beginnings of photography, artists have used the self-portrait to push the technical and artistic boundaries of the medium

The photographic self-portrait is as old as photography itself. Likewise, the urge to camouflage or self-dramatise oneself in front of the camera. In 1840, Hippolyte Bayard portrayed himself as a suicide victim in a photograph entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man. He was incensed at not being accorded the same kind of respect as his contemporary, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and the morbid tableau was his response to an art establishment which, he felt, had overlooked his achievements.

In depicting himself in such a melodramatic fashion, Bayard became not only the first photographer to take a self-portrait, but a pioneer of the kind of obsessive self-dramatisation that has come to define conceptual photography in recent times. Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography is, depending on where you stand, a feast of elaborate photographic reinvention or further evidence of the paucity of real intellectual thought that underlies so much conceptual practice.

Susan Bright, a curator as well as a writer, begins by contrasting Bayard’s pioneering self-portrait with the artist Gavin Turk’s 1997 Portrait of Something That I’ll Never Really See, in which Turk turns his deadpan eye on his “dead” self. Eyes closed, head shaven, skin blotched and pallid, Turk certainly looks the part, but the work is also, unconsciously or otherwise, about the death of the photographer. Or as Bright puts it: “Although Turk conceptualised and authored the self-portrait, he did not actually ‘take’ the photograph himself.”

Bright’s book is structured around five somewhat hazy, often overlapping, themes: autobiography, body, masquerade, studio and album, performance. In each, the notion of the self is stretched to an often absurd degree. Bright includes some well-known photographers – Martin Parr, Boris Mikhailov, Nan Goldin – but many names will remain mysterious to anyone not engaged with contemporary conceptual art.

They include the other Nick Cave, a Chicago-based sound-artist, the seriously disturbing Zhang Huan from China, who, for one performance art piece, covered his body in raw meat and burrowed into the ground, as well as a duo called My Little Dead Dick, who met on the internet through a photosharing website, fell in love and now document their life together in digital images. Their images are carefully posed to look casual, a defining trope of contemporary photography.

Sexuality, gender and cultural identity are the other dominant thematic tropes. Both Gillian Wearing, a British artist, and Hew Locke, a British-Guyanese one, create elaborate disguises to hide behind while shedding light on their respective societies. Jemima Stehl’s self-portraits, in which she strips in front of curators and critics, are as much about the predatory nature of the contemporary art market as they are about herself.

As Autofocus shows, the urge to turn the camera on oneself is as strong today as it was in Bayard’s age. The images may raise more questions than they answer, but they intrigue and provoke nonetheless.

Auto Focus by Susan Bright, is published by Thames and Hudson on 23 August

Read Sean O’Hagan’s photography blog

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