An Essay on Vivian Maier, Francesca Woodman, and Self-Photography By Madeleine Watts
In 1906 the playwright August Strindberg invited a friend to tea in his Stockholm apartment. When the friend walked into the living room, he found that all the chairs and sofas weren’t occupied by other guests but by photographs depicting Strindberg himself. When the friend asked why he had taken so many photos of himself, Strindberg explained that the photos other people took of him were always inadequate. “I don’t care a thing for my appearance,” he said, “but I want people to be able to see my soul, and that comes out better in my photographs than in others.”
Strindberg, in the ardent and unhinged way he announced a lot of things, once announced that the stars in the sky were peepholes in a wall. He believed it was possible to take a photograph of himself and capture something essential: his soul. And he believed it was possible because he was the one who could control the image. That element of control in self-photography is important, and it’s possible that to take a picture of yourself may seem to reveal something, while in reality it discloses nothing.
We’re accustomed to accepting that a photograph can lie—Photoshop can slim waists, tighten jaw lines, and give somebody a glass of juice to hold—but those aren’t the things that make a photograph artful or even poignant. We continue to believe a picture speaks a thousand words.
And we’re especially liable to believe the thousand words we perceive in a picture if it’s a picture of a woman. Women more than men have spent most of history being seen and not heard. We’ve spent five hundred years trying to find the source of the Mona Lisa’s smile. We look for the anguish in the faded picture of Virginia Woolf, we sense the trembling behind the stretched smile of Lindsay Lohan emerging from a doorway into a neon-lit street at 3am, the compromised grace of an anonymous teenage girl lit up by the flash of the smart phone she holds in her hand. We’re used to anatomising the essence of a woman in the images that have been taken of her.
If a woman took tens of thousands of photographs, many of them pictures of herself, and then never showed them to a soul, never meant for anybody to see them at all, what could you know about that person from her photographs?
Moscow-based photographer Alexander Khokhlov working with makeup artist Valeriya Kutsan manage to capture faces as surreal versions of themselves, inspired by two-dimensional posters, comics, pop art, paintings, pixelated images, and cartoon characters. The project explains: “Valeriya used different techniques of face painting so you can see a lot of variations – from sketch and graphic arts to water-colour and oil-paintings. This is a combination of interesting make-ups, studio photography experiments and careful retouching.”