A female lens
‘As she is’ - the female self-portrait
How women explore authenticity and identity through photographs
How women explore authenticity and identity through photographs
The power to take pictures is in our hands. Literally. There are about 8 billion people1 in the world and 6.8 billion smartphone users2, all with the ability to whip out a camera and snap themselves or their surroundings at any moment.
It’s hard to really know how many pictures are taken every day but one study puts it at around 2.3 billion, with 4% of them (that’s 92 million) being selfies.3 That’s over 1,000 selfies every single second.
‘Selfie’ was the word of the year in 2013, got its own ‘year’ on Twitter in 2014 and even has a national day - June 21 - dedicated to it in the US and UK. So, selfies are a big deal.
Women take way more of them than men - somewhere between 1.5 to 8.6 times more depending on the study you look at.4
In the first section of this exhibition, we saw how female painters seized on the self-portrait to explore and express their own self-image and to provide an alternative to the male gaze that was common in art at the time. But as Christina Rossetti’s poem points out - several centuries later, the male gaze was still strong. So, could the advent of photography finally deliver Christina Rossetti’s desire to see a woman ‘as she is’?
Not long after women began taking photographs, they began using them to take images of themselves.
In 1856, Italian Virginia Oldoini - aka The Countess of Castiglione - began directing the composition of self-portrait photographs. She was seen as the most beautiful woman of her day and was thought to be ‘fascinated by her own beauty’.
But she was no passive beauty. The Countess of Castiglione became her own art director, using photography to try to recreate important moments from her life, selecting costumes, staging and camera angles too. She also edited her work, adding paint to the photographs to enhance them, producing beautiful multimedia pieces.5 She would write detailed instructions on the back of the photographs to show how they should be retouched in the next version.
For example, the image below was a study for a larger painted version. The Countess’s notes suggest that she wanted the portrait to show ‘The remains of a ball where fire has broken out. A chandelier on the floor, and everyone in flight. Shining white satin gown, black and red grapes with dark green and red leaves.’
Let’s have a look now at a couple of photographers who, unlike the Countess of Castiglione, only occasionally turned the camera on themselves, making a living from photographing others.
Josefina Rydhom (1827-1880) ran a photography studio in Uddevalla, Sweden, in the second half of the 19th century. Her studio produced portraits of local people as well as landscapes of the city. In this self-portrait, she is seen with her camera, appearing in a fairly relaxed and informal pose. One elbow leans on the camera, while the other hand seems to fiddle with a button or necklace.
The Polish artist Olga Boznańska (1865-1940) was a successful painter of society portraits. She was noted for her exceptional ability to create psychological likenesses of her models in painted portraits. Boznańska's vivid, expressive style is also seen in the many self-portraits she made throughout her life.
Photographs of Boznańska communicate a self-confidence and sense of artistic persona. The wonderful 1893 portrait of Boznańska below captures the 28-year old artist posed in a highly stylised setting, holding a Japanese parasol and flanked by a blue and white vase, with her hair worn up and her eyes gazing away from the camera lens.
When photographed several years later at her Munich studio, Boznańska is posed amongst her paintings, seated low near the floor in dark clothes and looking directly at us, the viewer, with an unflinching, candid expression. She seems to say, ‘Here I am, an artist, and this is my world.’
Rather than being a way of showing an authentic female self (whatever that might mean), many artists and photographers use self-portraiture to play with and manipulate the presentation of that self. They use it to ask questions, to explore, to find out what is not, as much as what is.
In her work, Japanese artist Kimiko Yoshida explores the idea that there is no such thing as a self-portrait. She says that:
Each of [my] photographs is actually a ceremony of disappearance. It is not an emphasis on identity, but the opposite—an erasure of identity.6
In her work, The Neolithic Bride, we see Yoshida depict herself 9,000 years ago - a mask with a shadowy figure behind it, one open eye looking not at us but away from us. There are layers of identity here - one bright and solid but ancient, one living but dark and shadowy, making a disconcerting whole.
But whether you see them as demonstrating authenticity or imagination, about celebration or narcissism, about control or manipulation, about creating or destroying, self-portraits provide an empowering opportunity for women to be in control of that identity, however fleeting.
And the selfie - usually a snapshot more quickly designed and quickly consumed than an artist’s self-portrait - offers the opportunity for all of us to play with, and share, the many versions of our identity with each other.
In the next photograph, we see a typical kind of selfie - we’ve seen plenty like this filling our social media feeds.
This is Annamia Olvmy, in front of a blue sky and blazing sunshine. While we might have seen many similar selfies before, every single one tells its own story, and for Annamia, this photograph marks a special moment:
Out in the middle of nowhere, on a work trip. Evolving. New concept that I encountered and like - inner and outer openness. And I have found a rock by the forest that I like to sit on. I miss my kid so my body aches. A week is a long time. PS I know there are alpacas living a little way from here, I have to try to get there. Just to say hello at least.
What version of yourself would you express in a self-portrait? Would you try to show an authentic version of yourself - you as you are right now? Would you want to express something you normally hide? Would you use it as an opportunity to share an idea or comment on society? Would you want to make others laugh, smile, or cry? We’d love to see your selfies and self-portraits inspired by this exhibition. Follow our social media and share with the hashtag #WomensHistory.
4 https://photutorial.com/selfie-statistics and https://theconversation.com/i-studied-5-000-phone-images-objects-were-more-popular-than-people-but-women-took-way-more-selfies-150080
5 https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/coca/hd_coca.htm and see also https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/virginia-oldoini-star-photography/