Step x Step: Auto Focus - Contemporary Photographic Artists Photograph Themselves

[by Susan Bright]

Body Parts: "To sense gravity, hang from a cliff by your fingertips," writes Minkkinen about his work on his Web site. Pictured here: Zerka Window, Dwejra Bay, San Lawrenz, Gozo, Malta, 2002.

“In many ways the author of a self-portrait is always presenting an impossible image, as he or she can never mimetically represent the physical reality that other people see,” explains Susan Bright in the introduction to Auto Focus, her international survey of 75 contemporary photographers known for their work with self-portraits.

Organized by five different categories of representation—Autobiography, Body, Masquerade, Studio and Album, Performance—and containing an extensive analysis of the discipline, Bright’s inquiry into the photographic representation of self offers valuable insight—from early history to current trends—about the passion artists have for putting themselves in the picture.

“It is a compulsion for almost anyone with a camera, artist or not, to turn it on him or herself,” Bright explains, “and a photographer or artist who has never taken a picture of himself or herself is a rarity. There is always a ready model, and the self is a fascinating subject, as a plethora of recent Web sites dedicated to self-portraiture so clearly illustrate.”

The three examples presented here merely scratch the surface of Bright’s compilation of artists who use a wide variety of creative strategies and photographic techniques when exploring their identity through art.



“The body in self-portraiture has long fascinated artists and photographers, from classical renderings of the nude form to the use of the body to question what is  human in a highly critical and political way.”

Spiritual Journey: By juxtaposing a simple arm gesture with the curve of a flowing river, Minkkinen‘s self-portrait investigates the complicated and ever-changing relationship between nature and culture. Pictured at left. Wie il-Ghasri, Gozo, Malta, 2002.

 Photo © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

For nearly 40 years Arno Rafael Minkkinen has been making naked portraits of himself in the wilderness. Using rigorous photographic limitations, such as no double exposures or dark-room interventions, he has set himself standards that are based on the high ideals of the 20th-century American Modernists. Minkkinen’s work takes him on a personal odyssey around the world to places of striking natural beauty. Additionally, the project represents a metaphorical and spiritual journey by investigating the complicated and ever-changing relationship between nature and culture.

The freedom associated with the nude body in a landscape has been explored extensively in painting, especially in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Minkkinen celebrates this genre and has made it his own with his particular lightness of touch, energy and humor. He revels in shifts of scale and environment that lead to unexpected visual charges. In one portrait he will blend his body seamlessly into his surroundings, in the next he will use its form to disrupt the setting and in a third he dominates the landscape, appearing to pick up a mountain with his fingertips, capture the sun with his cupped hand or effortlessly walk on water. With his acute understanding of how to transform a landscape through the insertion of his body, Minkkinen is one of the few contemporary photographers consistently using the pure body.

“I have come to understand that our connection to time before our birth and time after our death is best understood by looking at the rocks and trees, the sky and water, the primal landscapes of our past. I take comfort in the fact that not all things are knowable, but touching the surface of the water with my fingers is one magical way to be in the present. I do not have to see the reflection of my fingers to know it is there in the photograph.”


“Studio photography and photo albums continue to fascinate self-portrait artists, as the perceived limitations of the studio and the changing complexity of a ‘family’ that is constructed for an album provides a rich context in which to examine the self.”

Doppleganger: “The events portrayed in these photographs look believable, yet have never occurred,” Connell explains on her Web site. “By digitally creating a photograph that is a composite of multiple negatives of the same model in one setting, the self is exposed as not a solidified being in reality, but as a representation of social and interior investigations that happen within the mind.” Pictured at right: Around Here, 2006.

Photo © Kelli Connell

At first glance, the series Double Life appears to be a collection of images documenting a relationship between two women. But it quickly becomes obvious that the women, although dressed differently, have the exact same physical traits and are actually the same person featured twice. Kelli Connell has used digital tools to morph a single individual into both halves of a partnership, creating completely fictional scenarios that look believable. The final images do not appear to be self-portraits, as the doubled woman is a model Connell employs; however, Connell uses a self-timer when she shoots the photographs and initially casts herself as the second figure in order to capture the correct body language between the two women. After shooting the pictures, she uses Photoshop to replace the image of herself in each photograph with one of the model but often leaves behind part of her own body, such as an arm, in the completed portrait. The photographs are also invested with Connell’s personal thoughts and experiences. As she explains, “This work represents an autobiographical questioning of sexuality and gender roles that shape the identity of the self in intimate relationships. Polarities of identity such as the masculine and feminine psyche, the irrational and rational self, the exterior and interior self, the motivated and resigned self, are portrayed.”

The photographs allow the artist to examine the roles we adopt in romantic relationships and to question how our identities might shift or change in relation to those we love. They represent moments that are not traditionally represented in a family album and draw attention to how relationships are photographed and portrayed. Connell steers away from dramatic and formal images, instead capturing the subtlest gestures that only lovers would pick up on. These frissons between the characters are so well observed that one instinctively reads the photographs as showing two different individuals rather than mirror images of one. In this way, Connell highlights photography’s perceived role as a conveyer of truth and our inclination to take it at face value.

“Our thoughts are what is the most ‘real’ to us in many ways, and this photographic process allows me to bring my internal questions and memories to the surface.”



 In terms of self-portraiture, performed photography combines elements of 
masquerade, acting, impersonation and feats of human endurance common in performance art to challenge the idea of a coherent self. It is an important addition to the genre of self-portraiture, as it pushes photography far from the traditions that have dominated the medium.”

 A Body seen and heard: Cave’s complex identity has many layers, as described on his Web site. At left: Soundsuit, 2008.

 Photo © James Prinz

Chicago-based artist Nick Cave has produced his series of works entitled Soundsuits since 1991. They combine an intriguing interdisciplinary mixture of costume, sculpture, performance, dance and sound art. The photograph reproduced here shows Cave modeling one of his different creations. His images, which act as documentation of the artworks as well as stand-alone self-portraits, add another dimension to the interpretation, dissemination and contextualization of the objects. Each suit is designed to be worn and produces different sounds when the wearer moves. They are constructed of found objects, recycled clothes sourced in thrift shops, vintage beads and jewelry and hand-crafted components. The various artifacts attached to each costume create highly seductive, tactile surfaces. Wearing the suits, Cave gives flamboyant performances that embody elements of modern Western dance, but at the same time they reflect the use of masquerade and costuming in African and Caribbean cultures for celebrations or religious ceremonies. There is an air of Carnival to his high-energy and upbeat performances. Additionally, the way that Cave shows off his creations suggests their relationship to haute couture and the artificiality and drama of the fashion cat walk, which re-introduces—and recycles—new styles each season in an ongoing cyclical performance. When they are not being worn, the suits are displayed in a way that makes them appear as artifacts in an ethnographic museum. In the self-portraits, he is almost completely camouflaged and masked, invisible behind the costume, which allows him the freedom to transcend preconceived notions of class, race and sexuality. As Cave says, “I believe that the familiar must move towards the fantastic. I want to evoke feelings that are unnamed, that aren’t realized except in dreams.”




PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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