6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus
In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.
The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture. From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.
Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure. She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.
In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.
There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.
We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing. It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.
As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute, asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being. There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.
In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.
The work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.
These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement: ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’
What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.
Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.
The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.
Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go. A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”
I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.
Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.
There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.
Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance. It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.
In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.
The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.
As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie. In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.
It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’
[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 https://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 https://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 https://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 https://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016https://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”