Cindy Sherman, Petra Collins and Jo Spence: meet the original pioneers of the #selfie with this crash course in self-portraiture
There are a good proportion of people today who would argue that anybody who posts a ‘shameless selfie’ on Instgram is basically a self-portrait photographer. In past decades the process, the meaning and the value of the self-portrait has evolved hugely, especially for female artists. Early examples like Claude Cahun introduced a hybrid of surrealism and gender experimentation into the art scene, while contemporaries like the late-Jo Spence used their images to document their personal battles with identity and illness. In honour of such revolutionaries, here’s our breakdown of the most brilliant portraits by female artists.
Cindy Sherman is renowned for her ability to transform herself – from black and white Stepford wife to multicoloured clown – the New Jersey-born photographer's ability to experiment with identity is most famously chronicled in her work “Untitled Film Stills”. Shot between 1977 and 1980, her images can be traced back to her childhood where – feeling depressed as a young woman — the photographer would dress herself up as different characters as a form of escapism. It was only when her boyfriend at the time suggested she start documenting it did Sherman really see herself as a photographer; a step that transformed her into one of the most applauded visionaries in the world today.
Polly Penrose took self-portraits for several years before exhibiting them to anybody – first revealing them by entering a series titled “Nude” to a competition run by the London Photographic Association. Her first solo exhibition of nude self-portraits, titled “A Body of Work”, was held just one year ago. A world away from the usual hyper-sexualised image of the female form, Penrose creates surreal images by fitting herself into the most obdurate of places and positions, calling them a “physical conversation between (herself) and the space”. Using her medium to express her anxiety and mental health battles she faced after childbirth, Penrose’s images provide liberation to women who feel ashamed with their bodies.
Vivian Maier is one of the 20th century's most influential photographers, and also one of its most mysterious. Described as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, the American street photographer lived an understated life as a nanny to three boys and it wasn’t until her passing in 2009 that anyone even knew Maier was a photographer. Leaving behind more than 100,000 images documenting Chicago life in the 60s, the images were unearthed when an art collector bid $380 on a box of her negatives and posted them on flickr, and they went viral. Preferring the street to the studio, it was there that she captured some of her most haunting self-portraits. The original pioneer of the mirror selfie, Maier shot in shop window reflections and retail mirrors, all of which added an incredible sense of depth to her photos.
Hobbes Ginsberg – recently interviewed and featured in the summer issue of Dazed – is a Los Angeles-based freelance photographer and member of cyber art collective The Coven. Although identifying as queer and pushing the gender dialogue forward through her work, Ginsberg admits she gets frustrated when the conversation about her photography ends there. Her work explores not only personal issues with anxiety and depression, but also her experience of evolving as a person and an artist. Adorning her portraits with beautiful, gaudy colours and an essence of punk, Ginsberg takes any negativity and channels them into her photography, creating something much more positive and transient.
Francesca Woodman, a Colorado born photographer of the late 60s and mid-70s, took her first portrait at age 13 and continued to produce around 800 more images until her untimely death at just 22-years-old. She is best known for her ghostly black and white self-portraits – a figure crouched in the corner or a blur across the lens – Woodman used herself as a tool to draw the eye of the spectator to a specific point in her images. Her techniques have gone on to influences contemporary photographers of today – including Cindy Sherman, who has been known to cite Woodman’s work as inspiration.
iiu Susiraja has recently emerged on the Finnish photography scene with a distinctive take on self-portraits, focusing on creating the message that “the abnormal may be normal”. Claiming that life is her muse, and calling her art a “playful anarchism”, Susiraja’s self-portraits are wonderfully bizarre. Her series titled “Good Behaviour” exhibits her posing with a range of household items – from a broom under her boobs to baguettes in her hat – Susiraja uses her portraits to examine the relationships between women and the domestic home.
Claude Cahun was a French artist and writer who used her self-portraits to break down perceptions of gender, producing work as early as the 1900s. Ahead of her time in challenging ideals, she dressed for the camera, experimenting with the image of an androgynous woman, as well as feminine male – begging us to question the identity in her images. She rejected labels, even down to being called an artist, using her portraits to express this rebuttal of convention.
British photographer Jo Spence started her career in the 60s as a commercial photographer's assistant before shifting towards self-documentation. Two of her most jarring series, “A Picture of Health” and “Cancer Shock”, exhibit some of the more raw and personal self-portraits in contemporary photography. Collaborating with collaborator, friend and now-owner of her estate, Terry Dennett, she used the camera to track the stages of her mental and physical deterioration after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982. Continuing to work right up until her death in 1992, she completed her collection “The Final Project” as a response to her illness. Within this, she produced portraits with undertones of death, expressing what she called the “unrepresentable.”
Through this provocative self-portrait from her series “The Hairless Norm”, Petra Collins explores why, when girls start to get hormones, develop boobs, and grow pubic hair, they are told to strip it all back and revert to a more childlike image of themselves. The American artist addresses this social discomfort with female body hair by displaying it, and evolving the image with layers of pastels, pinks, and silver, to create a dreamy portrait with an undertone of feminist politics. Collins also uses the medium of the self-portrait to tackle conventional ideas of the female image, as well as the taboos of teenage sexuality.
This iconic French photographer of the late 70s was the daughter of Romanian immigrants and circus performers. She emerged on the Parisian art scene with a range black and white images of women, then appeared to combine surrealism and erotica. All female figures in her work, whilst exposing themselves to the camera, seem to have a look of vagueness and of disinterest with the spectator. In her own portraits, she adopted the same eerie stance, creating an unnerving and evocative image for her spectator.