Part 3: Putting Yourself in the picture: Exercise 1

Exercise 1
Reflect on the pieces of work discussed in this project in your learning log and do some further research of your own.
Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
• How do these images make you feel?
• Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on
your own identity in this way?
• What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
• Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
• Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the
purely personal?
Make some notes in your learning log.

Autobiographical self portraiture

“It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits – she produced
over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled
state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.
(Bright, 2010, p.25)

We are asked to: Look up Francesca Woodman’s images online. What evidence can you find for Bright’s analysis?

Francesca Woodman seems to me to have been a very self obsessed young lady. She was born to two artistic parents. We learn that the atmosphere in the household was one of self expression. She was encouraged to pursue her art and started taking photographs at the age of thirteen. Her first images were already self images.  Teenagers are self obsessed but with Woodman this obsession continued beyond her teenage years. Her work is very sensual and ephemeral. She had a beautiful young body which she used magnificently in many images.

I think from reading about her young life that she had always got what she wanted. She studied art in Rhode Island School of Design and took a year out to extend her studies in Italy. Her parents owned a farm house in Florence where she spent much time when she was a child. She spoke fluent Italian which gave her immediate access to the artists’ world there. She was living the dream. She was creating beautiful, if sometimes disquieting, images around herself and her friends.

So far so good. But then she had to face the real world. In 1979 she moved to New York. She expected to be hailed as a genius as soon as she hit the New York scene, without serving an apprenticeship. But this does not and did not happen so easily. She was, at the same time, rejected in love. Her life, thus far, it would appear to me, had ill equipped her for such rejection. So she made her images a reality she disappeared herself by committing suicide. Her final act of ‘look at poor me‘.

I do not necessarily agree with Bright that her images are a demonstration of a troubled state of mind. To me they speak of self obsession. Most photographers do not take easily to being photographed either by themselves or by someone else. Many self images by photographers tend to be taken in mirrors with camera in hand (1). They are workmanlike images. Others like Cindy Sherman create images of themselves in different guises. Sherman is playing a part in her self images while, I feel, Woodman glorifies herself in her images. She would have us believe she is this beautiful dreamlike waif. Although Polly Penrose (3) uses her body in self images I think her work speaks very loudly of her trying to find a way to hang on to sanity. Jo Spence (4) is another photographer who photographed her progress through cancer. There is no self pity in these images they are life as she was experiencing it.

Elina Broterus, we are told often includes herself in her work, both as an exploration of herself and as a study of her circumstances

I had not seen her work before this exercise. I started with a video of an interview with her in 2014 (5). From this I discovered she has, like me, a masters degree in Science and her present lifestyle is similar to my own.. She divides her time between her native Finland and her adopted land, France. This brief article, in a diary form, reflects exactly my own life. She talks about having two lives and aging at half the pace of her contemporaries in either country. She leaves and returns taking up her life where she left it off on her previous visit. Her friends and contacts continue to live their lives during her absences. She seems quiet, understated and introspective.

She has a lot of work on her own site (6) but not the particular images which have been recommended in this exercise. I  read the press release form the exhibition Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity.(8). There is only one of Brotherus’ images  in the press material so it was on to Dr Google and subset ‘images‘. Here I found many of Brotherus’ images from the Annunciation series. I found them very moving as my own daughter had gone through a similar procedure, and that after loosing her first husband, at the age of 34…. She is now the mother of two beautiful children. I am not sure if Brotherus ever managed to carry a child. She seems almost haunted.

Woodman’s images make me feel tender towards her because of her vulnerability while Brotherus’s images make me deeply sad. There is nothing I can do for her until she finds her inner peace. I cannot say that without a longed for child, she will be able to have a fulfilled life. my children came when I was very young, before I contemplated not having any. So it is a sense of helplessness I feel. The same sensation I felt when my son and his wife lost three babies in the early stage of pregnancy. Whatever I said I was never going to be able to understand their pain.

In Woodman’s case I do feel there is a sense of narcissism while in Brotherus’ case I feel this was her only way of making sense of what was happening in her life. Artist’s and writers, very often, create their work from their own experiences. Why not photographers?

Brotherus appears naked in many of her images to express vulnerability. She feels ravished by the medical intrusions to which she has been subjected and to no avail. She feels stripped of her dignity and of any protection from the prying eyes of the world. So she decides to go public and appear in all her nakedness. This is how she feels.

It depends on what one is trying to express for images to work without text. For example if one is extolling the virtues of pregnancy, then the naked extended belly of the woman carrying the baby, perhaps caressing her unborn child is sufficient. Pornographic images are not in need of text. One usually gets the ‘message’. Fragility, as in Woodman’s case can also work without text. I am not sure Brotherus’ images are sufficient to inform the outsider of exactly the cause of her pain.

I think, in some way both artists are trying to deal with wider issues. Brotherus is trying to indicate that we, the outsiders, need to be careful when dealing with friends and acquaintances. We cannot always know what someone is suffering and we do not have the magic wand to make it better.  We can only ‘be there‘ for our friends and family. I think she is also trying to highlight that the medical profession needs to be more sensitive when dealing with infertility. I can only concur with this sentiment. My daughter’s gynecologist said to her during her infertility treatment “We career women should have our babies earlier instead of trying to advance our careers“. She had not bothered to find out that my daughter had been widowed at 32 and re-married at 38.

Woodman also is saying something more than ‘look at my beautiful pictures‘. I am not sure I understand exactly what it is she is trying to say. I am not convinced she is saying ‘look how vulnerable I am‘ rather I think she is glorifying youth and beauty. She may also be saying ‘I am unhappy, even talented beautiful children can be unhappy,

  1. Famous Photographers’ Self-Portraits in Mirrors | Flavorwire | Page 18. 2016. Famous Photographers’ Self-Portraits in Mirrors | Flavorwire | Page 18. [ONLINE] Available at: http://flavorwire.com/281352/famous-photographers-self-portraits-in-mirrors/18. [Accessed 16 February 2016].
  2. Cindy Sherman – CHIMERA. 2016. Cindy Sherman – CHIMERA. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.digital-reflection.com/cindy-sherman/. [Accessed 16 February 2016].
  3.  Polly Penrose: A Body Of Work | Art & Culture, Photography | HUNGER TV. 2016. Polly Penrose: A Body Of Work | Art & Culture, Photography | HUNGER TV. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.hungertv.com/feature/polly-penrose-body-of-work/. [Accessed 16 February 2016]
  4. Artist of the week 199: Jo Spence | Art and design | The Guardian. 2016. Artist of the week 199: Jo Spence | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jul/19/artist-of-week-199-jo-spence. [Accessed 16 February 2016].
  5. Elina Brotherus and Home Truths | The Finnish Institute in London. 2016. Elina Brotherus and Home Truths | The Finnish Institute in London. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.finnish-institute.org.uk/en/articles/646-elina-brotherus-and-home-truths. [Accessed 17 February 2016].
  6. Elina Brotherus – Photography. 2016. Elina Brotherus – Photography. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/the-artist-and-her-model/. [Accessed 17 February 2016].
  7. 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.elinabrotherus.com/assets/pdf/articles/brotherus_here%20today_%2004.pdf. [Accessed 17 February 2016].
  8. Photography, Motherhood and Identity | Home Truths | The Photographers’ Gallery. 2016. Photography, Motherhood and Identity | Home Truths | The Photographers’ Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/photography-motherhood-and-identity. [Accessed 17 February 2016].

 

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