It is an unusual and pleasant surprise when an exhibition triggers recognition and reevaluation of your own preconceptions. Such was the effect of 'Love at First Sight'. With this project, curator Sanja Pahoki indicated that the portrait and self-portrait cannot be dismissed as an antiquated genre of art history. Shown at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in late 2002, 'Love at First Sight' sent out a challenge to the relevancy of portrait photography today.
The importance of the portrait is less apparent to those of us outside Sydney, beyond the reach of the Portia Geach Memorial Award and the Archibald Prize, or to visitors to contemporary art galleries where genres are less evident. The tradition of the portrait genre invests such images with an historicity, so that associations and meanings connect with the past, rather than the present. Artists have employed the portrait and its qualities to represent their own character, figures such as Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo or Paula Modersohn Becker; or they have worked with portraiture in reflecting contemporary humanity, think of Chuck Close and Elizabeth Peyton. Recently, the legacy of portraiture has been employed in playful or contradictory ways to create meaning, as in the work of Cindy Sherman or Yasumasa Morimura. And the form is no stranger to sensation or controversy, as Sarah Lucas, Tracey Ernin or Marcus Harvey (whose painting Myra, of convicted child murderer Myra Hindley, caused a stir in the United Kingdom) are well aware.
While the demands and support of patrons and the commemoration of notable sitters that historically underpinned portraiture continue to a small degree today, the trope of realism is essential to the persistence of portraits. This is particularly relevant in photography, with its depictive nature but mutable degrees of indexing reality, and is apparent in any line up of classic portrait images across the twentieth century, for example the works of Alfred Steiglitz, Walker Evans, August Sander, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Nancy Burson, Thomas Ruff, Larry Clark or Nan Goldin. Critical theories of photography, postmodem thought and the manipulative potential of digital technologies have undermined faith in concepts of truth, essence and indexicality. Today, the reality of the portrait relies on the combination of sitter, photographer and viewer, combining degrees of both objectivity and relativity of understanding.
An exhibition presenting photographic self-portraits by women and of women provides an opportunity to consider the survival of the portrait-does it rely on tradition and the investment of history? Is the genre flexible and able to reflect contemporary ideas? What are the meanings· and values ascribed to recent portraits and how do they establish such content?
'Love at First Sight' was founded on such questions and enabled a re-evaluation of the relevance of the photographic portrait. Curator of, and participant in, 'Love at First Sight', Sanja Pahoki, desired to both celebrate 'women in front of, behind and next to the camera' and to question the operation and distinct meaning, if identifiable, of women's self-representation by inviting eleven women artists to participate with self-portraits of their choosing, and including two series of images of other women.
Me, myself and I?
Is it different seeing a woman with a camera than a man? Moreover, what is revealed when image-makers tum the process on themselves? Do we somehow get closer to that elusive Truth by having direct access to the source? Are we shown something more, something real? Or does the smokescreen merely become more difficult to detect?1
In an age of post-feminism, after more than two decades of theoretical dismantling of fixed notions of gender and sexuality, current representations, whether text or image, are more likely to engage with contemporary social and cultural politics than work from a position of gender specificity. To posit the essential femininity of a subject appears to look back to modernist attitudes of the past, creating a nostalgia for such moments at a time when faith in them has been lost.
Pahoki, inspired by the work of other Australian women artists working in photography, offered the audience an opportunity to share her curiosity regarding what images convey about the self, and hence others. Assuming that any photograph, whether a self-portrait or not, implicitly reflects the conceptual project of the photographer, how does the artist deliberately, and unconsciously, define and redefine their own image?
Not surprisingly, the self-portraits by Chris Barry, Pat Brassington, Janina Green, Siri Hayes, Rebecca Ann Hobbs, Tracey Moffatt, Selina Ou, Sanja Pahoki, Kimberly Roxburgh, Julie Rrap and Anne Zahalka, subtitled Self-Made Women, present the artists as forces in control of the individual's working persona. Anne Zahalka, in an image from 1990, poses in front of a monochrome Stephen Bush painting of a landscape that itself recalls pictorial conventions. Zahalka is laden with technical equipment and has publications on photography for company. Obviously, a serious art professional, Zahalka looks away from both the viewer and the nature replicated behind her, focusing on reproducing another subject in the next photo. The nature of Zahalka's more recent practice finds her, again with cameras, sharing the object of the image in Self Portrait as a Collector #8 1996 (the artist with her collection of images), Self Portrait as a Wax Dummy 1998 (with a waxwork Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Self Portrait as Buddhist 2002 (alongside a monk). In Self Portrait 1999, a glamorous Tracey Moffatt is also working in the landscape, the horizon reflected in her sunglasses as she pauses between shots. Selina Ou presents the photographer as a fanciful urban ninja, scaling high-rise architecture with zoom lens at her side, resorting to desperate tactics to capture The Shot (2002).
The majority of these 'self-made women' portray themselves as serious professionals, both working with, and questioning, photographic convention and tradition. The serious photographer, regardless of sex, is stereotypically seen behind the camera (Barry, Moffatt, Zahalka). There are references to the photographer being 'on location' (Barry in Northern Territory, Siri Hayes with tongue-incheek humour, enjoying a tea party with her equipment in Picnic at Finns Reserve 2002). However, as women, they are not necessarily visible (Green, Hobbs, Pahoki, Roxburgh), and so undermine the nexus between portraiture and the face. Some faces are concealed-Janina Green under her equipment, Selina Ou behind a mask and Pahoki has her back turned, photographing a plane overhead in the sky. Pat Brassington also makes connotations about women's role in Camera (2000), a 'crotch shot' that is both seductive and humorous.
Not all artists presented themselves as such. Julie Rrap as Window Dresser# 1 (Marilyn) 2000 exemplifies the evident enjoyment the artisttakes in blurring the boundaries between presentation and role-playing. Her work reinforces the fact that artist and audience share an awareness of photography being no longer a reliable witness of reality (if it ever was) and hence, the uncertain, partial or multiple meanings images convey. The ability to present the sitter as other than who they are (with its long legacy stretching back beyond Ingre's images of Napoleon Bonaparte or Velasquez' of Phillip IV of Spain) has both ensured the survival of portraiture and provided telling insight into social, cultural or political realities. Viewers of 'Love at First Sight' could enjoy the blend of both 'the real' and the artist's 'smokescreen', referred to by Pahoki, which has infiltrated the orthodoxies of convention.
References to social and cultural context, personal interests and desires, and the conventions of photography appear alongside gender in these highly controlled images. The context of the exhibition, with its exclusive focus on female subjects, certainly frames the experience of the work. While there is some gender specific content in these images, particularly referencing exclusion from the canon, the exhibition also indicates that portraiture, in its ability to accommodate shifts in identities or social and national context, continues to present a valid mode of enquiry and communication about self and others in contemporary practice.
The lens who loved me
Countering the preoccupation with philosophical and political realities within the Self-Made Women images in 'Love at First Sight', are two bodies of 'straight photography' that extend the dialogue on representations of the artist and their subjects. Janina Green's hand coloured portraits of adolescent girls in their homes, entitled Something Gorgeous, is a tender reflection on young women on the cusp of adulthood. The colouring lends a sense of nostalgia, and a sympathetic relation between photographer and subject is suggested in the composition, Green framing each girl to fill the photo. Her series reflects the tension between the viewer's desire to invest each sitter with psychological insights or, alternatively, to acknowledge the creation of a set of representations, and attitudes toward a 'type'. A different sense of womanhood is evoked in the typology of Siri Hayes' Mother and Child series. Evidently ordinary mothers in everyday surroundings are, when represented in the gallery, overwhelmed by the power of history. Their roles may be ancient and mythical but the images of these young women draw an unavoidable association with that eternally youthful symbol of motherhood, the Madonna and child.
While unable to discard its artistic legacy, photography offers the portrait sufficient flexibility to adapt to contemporary circumstances, structuring knowledge rather than telling the truth. This is evident for photographers such as Phil Collins, who seek to present social realities by depicting subjects outside the everyday experience of most viewers, as it is for the artists in 'Love at First Sight' working within their own environment. Within the changing preoccupations of artists also lie issues of continuing relevance (aspects of power, ideas of beauty, relation between photographer and viewer, to name just a few). A comparison of Julie Rrap's Puberty series (1984) with her work today suggests a shift for the contemporary portrait from the questioning and remaking of history to the construction and reconstruction of the self. Instead of playing a smoke and mirrors game, as Pahoki speculated in 'Love at First Sight', women artists apply their control over representations of the self in ways true to their own creative projects. More than a face, or a body, the photographer sees herself as serious professional, achieving success and pursuing ideas on her own terms.
1. Sanja Pahoki, 'Foreword, Three headers and eleven ideas', Love at First Sight, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, exhibition catalogue, 2002, n.p.
'Love at First Sight' was shown at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, September-October 2002. Zara Stanhope is Senior Curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.