Sunday, July 21

Caught by the ‘I’

LACMA portrait exhibit provokes viewers' personal definitions of self

By John Irvin

The camera shows what appears to be a female figure seated on a
chair. She is wearing tight pants and stockings, and she is
blindfolded. Her hands are tied behind the chair. The photograph is
a self-portrait by Pierre Molinier.

A viewer might ask why a woman appears as the subject of a
self-portrait by a photographer with a man’s name. Perhaps it is a
woman using a man’s name. But the date of the work is 66 years
after the photographer’s birthdate, and the subject looks young.
Perhaps the photographer is making a statement of self by excluding
his own image. Perhaps the photograph has been doctored in some

In any case, the discrepancies between our assumptions about
self-portraits and this result provide mystery to Molinier’s self-

Molinier’s work and over 100 others are part of "The Camera I,"
a collection of photographic self-portraits currently showing at
Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Oct. 23.

The collection began as the project of Audrey and Sydney Irmas
during the 1970s, and was donated to LACMA in 1992. It includes
works ranging from the mid-19th century to the present day.

A visitor cannot view the photographs for very long without
reflecting on the nature of self-presentation. The exhibit begs the
question, "What is self-portrait?"

Some works, such as the self-portraits of Imogen Cunningham and
Edward Weston, seem like straightforward presentations of the
photographer as subject. Others, such as Molinier’s untitled work,
test the credulity of the viewer.

Still others, such as works by Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol,
obstruct the relationship between the viewer and the subject by
fragmentation of the subject as a whole.

A self-portrait is a statement of self. In fact, anything we do
- putting on certain clothes, performing our job, taking our exams,
singing a song – can be considered self-portrait in that it
reflects our own inner feelings and self-perception.

A self-portrait provides the artist with the opportunity to
present himself or herself to the viewer. The process is
self-conscious and self-revealing. It is personal. A statement of
self is an intimate experience in which the photographer decides
how much or what angle of himself or herself to reveal, and then
controls the process of recording that image.

Some photographers control their image very carefully, while
others let their hair down and allow the camera to record whatever
is there to be seen.

But if a self-portrait involves the "self," what is the self?
How does the photographer define that self?

The self can be many things. Some, such as Robert Mapplethorpe
and Diane Arbus, define their self through their body. In
Mapplethorpe’s "Self-portrait" from 1980, he reveals himself in the
nude, from chest up, with long flowing hair, bursting with animal

In Diane Arbus’ "Self-portrait in Mirror," she appears mostly
unclothed and also reveals a sensuality, but of a different sort.
She is obviously pregnant in the photograph – her enlarged belly
shows it. The purpose of the photograph was to announce her
pregnancy to her husband, who was stationed overseas during World
War II.

Not only does her belly show the physical state of being
pregnant, but her entire body, her stance, the attitude of her head
and the expression on her face all reveal a psychological message
of playful coolness and vulnerability. Arbus shares a very touching
and personal moment with the camera. The pose seems to say, "Here I
am," or "Look what you did," or even, "Are you going to take care
of me?"

Other artists define their self through their role. Edward
Staichen, in his "Self-portrait with Brush and Palette, Paris,"
poses at the easel, with palette and paintbrushes in hand. O.
Winston Link poses with an assistant and his impressive array of
cords and lighting equipment in "Link and Thom with Night Flash

Margaret Bourke White, in "Self-portrait with Camera," shows
herself standing by her camera mounted on its tripod, at the ready,
with an air of self-confidence. Self-portraits can show human
beings’ pride in what they do.

Some artists define the self through the environment around
them. Louis Faurer, in his work titled "Self-portrait, 42nd Street
El Station looking towards Tudor City," shows himself reflected in
a series of windows which reflect some of the elements of mid-town
Manhattan in the background, including the Chrysler Building.

Still other artists define themselves through action, fantasy
and mortality. Eadweard Muybridge shows himself performing athletic
activities such as walking and swinging a pick in a series of step
by step photographs in "Animal Locomotion." Duane Michals, in
"Self-portrait as if I Were Dead," depicts himself laid out on a
gurney, while, dressed in black, he looks on as a mourner.

Robert Mapplethorpe, in one of his most famous works,
"Self-portrait," from 1988, announces his partnership with his own
approaching death (he died of AIDS-related causes in 1989) by
posing beside a skull topped cane. In this photograph, the body is
blacked out, blending in with the background so that only his head
and hand can be seen, along with the cane.

For Mapplethorpe, the progression from the earlier self-portrait
to the later one shows a marked change in self-definition. Whereas
the earlier work emphasizes the body, the later one makes the body
almost nonexistent. The earlier work has a feeling of freedom and
sensuality; the later one has a kind of quiet reserve. It shows the
seriousness of a man who knows that his time is limited.

Life is a journey, and we do change. A photograph can only
record an instant in that journey, but that instant can be filled
with much detail, both intentional and unintentional. In the
collection of Audrey and Stanley Irmas, we can gain greater insight
into that journey, into the artists and into ourselves.

"The Camera I." Displayed at Los Angeles County
Museum of Art through Oct. 23. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for
students over 18 with ID, $1 for children under 18. For more info
call (213) 857-6000.

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