Project 1

Autobiographical self-portraiture

Exercise: 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?

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) shot mainly black and white photographs, which may at first seem impromptu were actually carefully constructed. She told her friend Sloan Rankin why she was so often the subject of her own photographs, Woodman replied: ‘It’s a matter of convenience, I’m always available’ (quoted in Rankin 1998, p.35).

 Space?, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 1975-8 by Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 (Tate 1, 2017)

This is one of a series of seven from Woodman’s Space2 series where she blurred and distorted her body. It has been suggested that Woodman’s movement was to “show you what you do not see – the body’s inner force’ (Woodman quoted in Jui-Ch’i Liu 2004, p.28), refusing to “to allow her body to be defined by the viewer’ (Jui-Ch’i Liu 2004, p.28).

Untitled 1975-80 by Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 (Tate 2, 2017)

In this image her foot is blurred, does she do this to avoid completely exposing herself in a portrait?

Untitled 1975-80 by Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 (Tate 3, 2017)

In this image Woodman’s arms are blurred as they move and her face is obscured as it looks down.

Francesca-Woodman-From-Space2-.jpg (British Journal of Photography, 2017).

As you can see her images were often blurred by long exposures and slow shutter speeds. She rarely reveals her whole self, and usually if she does not disguise herself by blurring she uses props to mask parts of her body, such as the peeling wallpaper above.  In her images the viewer is “ drawn to the emptiness around her, pushed to consider not just shape of the girl, but also her performance, her position in the portrait, her process of capturing her image, the act of photography itself” (British Journal of Photography, 2017).

Some compare her photography to Surrealist photographers, whilst others “insist she was a feminist, exploring the ways women are forced to conceal and disguise their true selves” (Salter, 2017). Reflecting on what I have seen of her work it does seem to me that her photographs are about are about showing herself but only partially, whether this is to disguise or intrigue I’m not certain.

Elina Brotherus (b1972) is a contemporary photographer who in her work “Annunciation” uses photography as an investigative tool. In the series she shows through her images her journey through IVF treatment. The title Annunciation provides an association with her difficult process becoming pregnant with the Virgin Mary’s, and certainly her images shout sorrow and loss. In fact in conversation she tells how she enjoys looking back and comparing things (The Finnish Institute in London, 2017). Brotherus says that she looks for reflections or mirror images, hiding and showing, or horizons. She believes her work is often defined by her old slow 4”by 5” viewfinder camera which needs a tripod and takes time to set up encouraging her to look carefully.

Brotherus (Boothroyd, 2016)

Gillian Wearing (b 1963) in her series Album uses masks to recreate family photos, using the original image with her behind a facial mask. She had silicone prosthetics made of her mother, father, sister, grandmother and her 17-year-old self-created (see below), and then made self-portraits while wearing them.

wearing 2 (Skidmore, 2017)

haunted_l4_z (Guggenheim, 2017).

In this Self-Portrait at Three Years Old (2004) her adult stare gazes through the eyeholes of the toddler’s mask “Wearing plays on the rift between interior and exterior and raises a multitude of provocative questions about identity, memory, and the truthfulness of the photographic medium” (Guggenheim, 2017). Wearing said “What I love about photographs is that they give you a lot and also they withhold a lot.” (Anon, 2017).


The work of Francesca Woodman may have become more interesting as her early death means that she is unable to answer questions about her work and her purpose remains a real enigma. I do find her images ascetically pleasing, the blurring, the shaping of her body and the variety of props and backdrops that she uses. There is obviously an element of self-indulgence in her images but I sense that this is caused by a preoccupied troubled mind rather than narcissism. I am not sure whether she is addressing issues wider than her own.

 Elina Brotherus appears self-indulgent but again for a reason and this time one that I can understand having just completed my C and N assignment 2, photographing the unseen, which was self-documentary. She is candid about her purpose in the series. Her nakedness in many of the shots I’m guessing is to symbolise the baring of her soul and possibly to intensify the vulnerability that she feels, hoping desperately to conceive. Though this work is personal I believe she is reaching out to share with the many others going through the same emotional and physical experience.

 I was able to view some of Wearing’s work at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun : Behind the mask another mask”. It seems to me from her early polaroid “selfies” that there is an element of self-indulgence in her work. However it she has since developed this early self-consciousness into experimentation with the passage of time, identities and in particular her identity in relation to others. Wearing has said “you always feel that you are in a mask to some degree” (National Portrait Gallery wall, 2017). I found her images interesting, question provoking although not aesthetically pleasing to me. Certainly none of these photographers are afraid to use self-portraiture as a means of self-exploration which is thought provoking to their viewers, and can work at different levels without any accompanying texts.


Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http://“Gillian Wearing,” interview by Leo Edelstein, Journal of Contemporary Art [Accessed 4 Apr. 2017].

Boothroyd, S (2016) Context and Narrative. Bridgeman Art Library. Barnsley.

British Journal of Photography. (2017). On Being an Angel: finding Francesca Woodman in the otherness of her self-portraits. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

Guggenheim. (2017). Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2017].

Jui-Ch’i Liu, ‘Francesca Woodman’s Self-Images: Transforming Bodies in the Space of Femininity’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol.25, no.1, Spring–Summer 2004, pp.26–31.
Isabella Pedicini, Francesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Skin and Film, Rome 2012.

Salter, K. (2017). Blurred genius: the photographs of Francesca Woodman. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2017].

Sloan Rankin, ‘Peach Mumble – Ideas Cooking’, in Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, New York 1998, pp.33–7.

Tate 1. (2017). “Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978”, Francesca Woodman 1975–8 | Tate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

Tate 2. (2017). Untitled, Francesca Woodman 1975–80 | Tate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

Tate 3. (2017). Untitled, Francesca Woodman 1975–80 | Tate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

The Finnish Institute in London. (2017). Elina Brotherus and Home Truths. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2017].

Skidmore, M. (2017). The Many Selves of Gillian Wearing. [online] AnOther. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.