Category Archives: 09 Autobiographical self-portraiture

Exercise: Autobiographical self-portraiture

For this exercise we are asked to look at Francesca Woodman, Elina Brotherus and Gillian Wearing and do some research on these photographers. We are then asked to consider the following questions:

How do these images make you feel?

I find I identify best with Brotherus’s images. They are true and honest in an understated manner. Woodman’s images are experimental, well constructed and very representative of a young woman trying to find herself. I can’t really relate to Wearing’s images as I feel that the masks create a barrier between her and the viewer. They come across as emotionless.

Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?

I don’t think narcissism can be applied to these three photographers. Interestingly the online dictionary (US English) defines narcissism as: excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance, while the British English’s definition is: excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance – a very subtle difference between the two definitions. I don’t think self-indulgence plays much of a role either, as the one model you never have to pay and who is always handy when you need him/her is yourself.

What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?

I believe Brotherus’s nakedness is a reflection of the honesty that runs through all her images. Its an expression of her vulnerability and serves as a ‘decluttering’ mechanism in images where clothing would complicate the reading of the photograph in a similar fashion as when one chooses to shoot monochrome instead of colour.

Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?

I think for the most part viewers can read a photograph well without text. While they may not understand it fully as the photographer initially intended, they will apply their own cultural perspective and experiences when reading the images. Images like those of Wearing’s self-portraits, however, I think will be difficult to understand without any accompanying text.

Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?

Elina Brotherus is definitely addressing wider issues that go beyond the personal. Her Annunciation series addresses the question of infertility and the emotional aftermath of failed IVF treatments. Her Suites françaises 2 series addresses the difficulties (and humour) of transplanting oneself in a foreign country without knowing the culture or the language. Some of Woodman’s images suggest a disturbed state of mind which in turn raises the question of mental illness. Wearing’s Album series is concerned with family relationships.

Reference List

Oxford Dictionaries [online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 October 2015]

Oxford Dictionaries [online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 October 2015]


Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing is a British photographer and is best known for her series of street portraits made in 1992-3 where she approached strangers and asked them to write their thoughts or feelings on a sign, which she then photographed. The results were quite revealing considering that British people are known to be quite reserved.

Her self-portrait series, Album, consists of photographs of Wearing masquerading as her family members. She used old family photos as reference points and created silicon masks of each family member, even of herself at different ages, which she then wore to make her self-portraits. Apart from the fact that the masks are really quite smooth, which are fine for the younger family members, but a bit of a give away for the older generation, they are quite realistic and it’s only upon close inspection that one notices the cutouts around the eyes that something is amiss. Then I find the images become a little creepy. The cutouts are more noticeable on some images than others. The only way Wearing is expressing herself is through her eyes. Some of her images can be seen here.

According to Susan Bright (p. 43) ‘the disguise offers a liberating escape from the ‘self’, and the masks and the slippage of identities revel the thin line between reality and fantasy.’ By exploring her identity in this way, Wearing is paying homage to her family members with which she shares her DNA – a little part of them is a part of her too.

Reference List

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now (2nd revised edition). London: Thames & Hudson


Adams, Tim (2012). Gillian Wearing: ‘I’ve always been a bit of a listener’ [online] The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed 3 October, 2015]

Wearing, Gillian. Maureen Paley Gallery [online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 October, 2015]

Zuckerman, Margaret (2012). Gillian Wearing Wearing a Mask of Gillian Wearing [online] Daily Serving: An International Publication for Contemporary Art. Available from: [Accessed 3 October, 2015]

Elina Brotherus

Elina Brotherus is a Finnish photographer who divides her time between her native country and France. All OCA students are familiar with some of her images from her project, Suites Françaises, which are featured on the cover of Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art, one of our recommended texts.

Brotherus’s work explores various facets of her life. She documents her history and the issues arising in her life. Her images have to be true and she makes them during the crisis or episode that is occurring at that moment in her life. She will not go back and recreate a scene at a later period as she feels that is dishonest.

I find her images definitely reflect a stream of honesty running through all her projects. Even though she is nude in many of her images, I do not find the images narcissistic at all. They are full of introspection. Many of her projects deal with women’s issues, love, breakups and things that women do not openly speak of like the question of infertility and the empty void that is created in a woman’s soul because she cannot conceive (her Annunciation series). Brotherus is very fond of using reflections in her photography. She also finds ways of hiding and revealing the subject, by allowing partial barriers to come between the camera and the subject, eg a misted up mirror or shower door. She is very interested in the gaze, specifically the artist’s gaze meeting the gaze of the viewer and many of her images feature this method of photography. Brotherus also places herself into her landscape images to act as a anchoring focal point. Usually she is seen from the back. Photographing someone from the back seems to lend an air of mystery to the image, leaving the interpretation more open to the viewer. I find that her images leave me wanting to know more about the experience or person. Even her landscapes have this ambiguous air to them.

Reference List

Elina Brotherus: It’s not me, it’s a photograph [vidcast, online] Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. November 2012. 15 min 25 secs (accessed 01/10/2015)


Elina Brotherus [online]. Available from: [Accessed 29 September, 2015]

Francesca Woodman

“It is difficult not to read Woodman’s may self-portraits – she produced over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.”

(Bright, 2010, p. 25)

Our course book directs us to look at Woodman’s images online and see what evidence we find for Susan Bright’s comment above.

Woodman’s photographic career started at the tender age of thirteen when her father gave her a camera. A lot of her work are self-portraits – she was always available to model for herself. Much of her work also feature nude women.

I’m not sure that I agree entirely with Bright’s statement above. I find Woodman’s work to be representative of a young teenager exploring her sexuality, trying to discover herself. As she gets older, the photos seem to have more questions layered into them. I see signs of rebelliousness and curiosity in her work, but I also see a sense of humour in some of her images (Yet another leaden sky). On the other hand, some of her images are a little disturbing. The precarious position of the door in Untitled 1975 – 80 with Woodman lying curled up naked beneath it seems to suggest an element of self-harming to me.  Similarly, I find her Eel Series very disturbing. Maybe it is because of my aversion to snakes – but the thought of lying naked next to such creatures, be they dead or alive, just creeps me out totally.

Notwithstanding her quirkiness, she was an extremely talented photographer and her images do reveal her journey of self-exploration into womanhood. She utilised various techniques like long exposure to create ghostly images and various Surrealism motifs in her photographs, usually putting herself in the frame, either fully, partially or hidden. One might say her body of works represent her short life’s journey.

Reference List

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography.  Cited in Boothroyd, S. (2014)  Photography 1: Context and Narrative.  Open College of the Arts, p.74

Woodman, Francesca. Eel Series, Roma, May 1977 – August 1978 [online]. Tate. Available from: [Accessed 27 September, 2015]

Woodman, Francesca. Untitled 1975 – 80 [online]. Tate. Available from: [Accessed 27 September, 2015]

Woodman, Francesca. Yet another leaden sky. {online]. Francesca Woodman Gallery. Available from: [Accessed 27 September, 2015]


Cooke, R. (2014)  Searching for the real Francesca Woodman [online].  The Guardian.  Available from [Accessed 27 September, 2015]

Woodman, Francesca [online]. Wikipedia. Available from: [Accessed 27 September, 2015]