The New York Times
January 5th, 2007
PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Self-Portraits That Obscure the Self
Photographers and painters have always made self-portraits; doing your own likeness is part of an artist’s franchise. But sometimes the camera’s potential nudges photographers further, encouraging a theatrical impulse: to portray themselves as a clown, or a person of the opposite sex, or even, say, Jesus. That was the case with F. Holland Day (1864-1933), a wealthy and eccentric Bostonian influenced by artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Starting out as a publisher of belles lettres, in the late 1880s he began making photographs, and rather exotic ones, at that.
Probably his best-known work is an 1898 series of more than 250 photographs portraying the Passion of Christ, in which he posed as Jesus, training for the role by losing weight and letting his hair and beard grow. What is usually shown from this series is the group known as ‘’The Seven Last Words of Christ,’’ seven portraits that refer to Jesus’ statements from the time of his crucifixion until his death. In each photograph Mr. Day, in character, assumed what he felt were facial expressions consonant with Jesus’ ordeal.
Mr. Day’s work, more or less sidelined by Modernist photography, nevertheless reverberated into the 1960s, when artists began to pick up on the notion he and other early photographers had of seeing themselves in unaccustomed aspects, perhaps as historical or fantastical personages or in other manifestations rising above the usual tightly controlled portrait shot. Now, in ‘’Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day,’’ a small show organized by Carrie Springer, a senior curatorial assistant, the Whitney Museum of American Art has juxtaposed ‘’The Seven Last Words of Christ’’ with less exalted photographs from its own collection by 14 more recent practitioners who present themselves in all manner of guises.
Arguably the best-known serial self-imagist of our times is Cindy Sherman, who has portrayed herself in hundreds of elaborately constructed semblances, from a modest housewife to the elegant subject of portraits by Rembrandt and Ingres. Here she appears in a more commonplace role, the sexless clown (’’Untitled,’’ 2004) whose morose stare contrasts sharply with the flamboyance of her getup. Others who cross the gender gap include Robert Mapplethorpe, dressed as a cool, befurred floozie in ‘’Self-Portrait’’ (1980); and Lyle Ashton Harris, who in ‘’Billie #21’’ (2002) sees himself as his idol Billie Holiday with fur wrap and pearl necklace, mouth wide open in mid-song.
For some of the artists in the show, self-identity has strong political overtones. Gender inequality was a serious matter for the feminist performer Hannah Wilke (1940-1993), who in a photograph of her face from her ‘’S.O.S. Scarification Object Series’’ (1974) sardonically calls attention to her femalehood by wearing her hair in curlers and plastering her face with small, vulva-shaped patches of chewing gum.
Anti-homosexual sentiment is flouted by Robert Gober, who for his ‘’Untitled’’ (1992-96) has concocted a dummy page from The New York Times, inserting himself into a bridal-gown advertisement positioned under an article headlined ‘’Vatican Condones Discrimination Against Homosexuals.’’
The dilemma of being black in a white society is separately enacted by Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems. In ‘’Food for the Spirit’’ (1971), a series of 14 photographs that seem to grow progressively blacker, Ms. Piper can be dimly perceived, sometimes nude and facing frontally, a camera at the ready as if to snap a picture of the viewer. Her own image is finally lost in darkness. Ms. Weems’s ‘’Portrait of Myself as an Intellectual Revolutionary’’ (1988) shows her staring defiantly at the viewer, hands folded under chin, elbows resting on a barren desk, wearing a white sleeveless shirt with a hammer-and-sickle logo. Behind her hang portraits of a Russian woman worker holding a gun, Marx and other political figures.
Lucas Samaras and Francesca Woodman project otherworldly, rather than political, identities. In ‘’Skull and Milky Way’’ (1966) Mr. Samaras places an X-ray of his skull against the vast, glittering background of the galaxy. And in a slightly more intimate interplay with closer surroundings, Ms. Woodman (1958-81), her crouching nude body camouflaged by a piece of torn wallpaper, puts her hands yearningly against a wall as if she would be part of it (1976).
Even though this show is small, it is more inclusive than it ought to be. Surely the performance of a so-called body artist like Chris Burden, who in an early piece from 1971 presents himself as a man of invincible strength, strapped to the floor with copper bands while live wires come dangerously near him, has less interest as psychic exploration than as a physical feat. And the same goes for Charles Ray, another California provocateur who in 1973 attached his body to a tree branch for more than half a day to be mulled by puzzled passers-by.
Nor is it easy to catch a clue to the inner persona of Nan Goldin in ‘’Nan and Brian in Bed’’ (1983). The show’s concept is a good one, and there are wonderful things here, but a certain confusion of focus and its limitation to the Whitney’s own collection seem to handicap better development of the theme.
‘’Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day’’ continues through March 11 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, (212) 570-3676, whitney.org