Numerous artists have done self-portraits over the course of their careers and in the past thirty years, a variety of photographers have used self-portraiture as a means of artistic expression. These photographers chose to photograph themselves to comment on the human condition in contemporary society. One such example is the work of Cindy Sherman, who uses ritual and drama coupled with photography to create unparalleled images.
In the 1980s Postmodern photographers like Sherman, Barbara Kruger and others wanted to raise awareness that the mass media was subversively manipulating the viewer. Another of their concerns was that if the context of an image changes, its meaning also changes. In Sherman’s series Film Stills, she focuses on the “subtle nuances” of the media’s power. At the same time she is also looking for the viewer’s participation in establishing meaning in her work. For this series, she did self-portraits that show her in situations that could have been taken from B movies. For each photograph she devised a female character played by herself and a set to use as a background in the image. She wore different types of clothes, props and wigs to render herself unidentifiable from one shot to the next. It is conceptually important that Sherman is always the ‘actress’, in the sense that her transformation stands for the change that women go through subconsciously to comply with the stereotypes that are promoted and dictated by the mass media.
In Untitled Film Still #15, Sherman plays the seductive bombshell possibly awaiting the arrival of a date. Since Sherman never offers the viewer enough information to safely establish a narrative in her images, we are left guessing. For instance, Sherman’s protagonist could have chosen her clothes for a fancy dress party and her concerned look could be for something that is happening in front of her window. Countless narratives could be created from these images, keeping in mind the outdated chair and the brick wall as well as the necklace with a cross pendent the heroine is wearing. If any of these features were removed from the photograph, the narrative would change, too. Sherman uses this seemingly simple method and thereby divulges the intricate ways in which images become charged with meaning.
After creating several other bodies of work, Sherman was yet again drawn towards Hollywood. Her most recent series Untitled 2000, shows women modeling in front of the camera. The composition of each photograph is that of a traditional studio portrait in front of a conventional backdrop. The sitters look straight into the camera. The subjects give the impression of being exuberant but at the same time also vulnerable. Her characters in this series are women on the periphery of show business, or would-be Hollywood actresses. Similar to Film Stills this series also suggests different narratives for the female sitters: unemployed actresses hoping to find a job, everyday women waiting to be “discovered” or grown-up child actresses. Their toil is shown in the contradiction of “too much” and “not enough”, the sun-burnt skin and hair, failed plastic surgeries, badly applied make-up, bad fashion choices and the prevalent cheek and the fatigue that all of the sitters seem to be affected with. Even though the sitter’s attempts at tasteful attire do not work out but seem rather sad, Sherman never tries to ridicule her subjects. In a sense these photographs are a record “of human dreaming and impossibility.”
A different approach to self-portraiture can be seen in the work of Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler. When looking at the first image of her American Narcissism series, where Quintenz’s character is looking at herself in a mirror, one is reminded of the Greek myth of Narcissus. This hero was famous for being beautiful and according to legend extraordinarily cruel, despising those who loved him. As punishment, the goddess Nemesis made him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. As he does not realize he fell in love with his own reflection, he dies locked in a gaze with himself.
The reference to ancient myth as well as the title of the series give the viewer the idea that the American Narcissist has also fallen in love with herself. Therefore, Rin does not care for anybody else but herself. Proof of this can be seen in the wedding photograph, which only shows her as the bride and no one else. She is also holding her own personal little cake with only the bride as decoration.
One wonders whether the character is holding up the mirror for herself and the viewers as well, to make them aware of their own narcissism or possible selfishness in certain areas of their lives.
It is interesting that the artist chose to include flaws in her images such as the hole in the doctor’s glove with the red fingernail showing or the upside down sheet of music in the image of the piano concert. There are different interpretations that can be read into these flaws. Do the people around Rin notice that she is only pretending and just looking the part and that she does not actually possess the skills needed for the tasks at hand? Or, is this to indicate that the well-manicured façade of her character is falling apart because she just cannot keep pretending any longer? Or perhaps, is it because the protagonist herself is falling apart and cannot keep up the pretence any longer because it has become too stressful for her?
When viewing the whole series one realizes that Rin’s pose never significantly changes, her head is always situated in the same spot, her hands usually perform the same gesture unless she is holding some prop. Quintenz explains this frozen pose quite aptly by saying, “the American Narcissist remains, indefinitely, the same.” The photographs are visual evidence that Rin never changes, she never grows or evolves as a person since she does not see the benefit of doing so.
American Narcissism comments on contemporary society and how it puts importance on looking and dressing a certain way to achieve success rather than having the relevant skills and knowledge. As the series shows one person cannot become an expert in various areas such as being a concert pianist, a successful businesswoman or a surgeon at the same time. These different career paths need dedication and the appropriate skills take a long time to acquire. So, possessing all of them seems rather unlikely. For the American Narcissist it is just a question of looking the part and pretending, whether the protagonist is asleep, sick, or is doing the washing up with her perfectly manicured nails and color coordinated outfit.
Readers, do you agree or disagree with Sherman and/or Quintenz? Can you think of any other women photographers that use self-portraits in similar ways? Are they concerned about the same issues as Sherman or Quintenz?