Female self-portraits: from the Castiglione Countess to Laurence Philomene

By Zazi White

When I first thought about writing this post, I had in mind Vivian Maier’s Photoespaña exhibition in Madrid, but the truth is that, at this point, a lot has been told about it, so I’ve decided to go a step further. I think Vivian Maier is truly interesting, especially because of the art brut character of her story and because I’m most interested in opaque people, but I thought a post about female self-portraits in the history of photography would be more interesting. There are some names missing in this list; some of them are known by everyone while others aren’t that famous, but, in my opinion, they all have made great things and their work is inspiring at different levels.

I will begin with who is regarded as the pioneer of female self-portraits, and I say this to the best of my knowledge, so if she isn’t, please tell me because I really want to know. Back in the 19th century, Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoini, better known as the Castiglione Countess, was believed to be the most beautiful woman of her time. Photographs of her—she was a secret agent and had a strategic affair with Napoleon III—were featured in magazines. Her ego was such she became addicted to portraits and had over 500 done. Contrary to what was common then, she would choose the clothes, the poses, the props, and even the views; the court photographer, Pierre-Louis Pierson, became a mere camera operator. She would also choose the final product to accompany the photograph. The Castiglione Countess would have portraits of herself taken, but she would also play dress as theatre play characters.
At that time, fashion photography didn’t exist yet, so all this denoted great originality. It could be said she was the predecessor of modern-day photographers such as Cindy Sherman.

Condesa de Castiglione

A lot has been said about Cindy Sherman and I’m sure you all know who she is. Sherman was one of last century’s queens of photography. She’s a master of self-portraits who doesn’t take portraits herself but characterized different characters she plays to represent other realities. She has an extensive body of work. She played an active role in the 1970s feminist movement alongside other performance artists who believed that “personal is political”. All of Sherman’s work is traversed by a reflection about women in different fields, as well as by the representation of women in their own reality.
Sherman’s body of work is gigantic and could fill several posts, but I’d like write now about another photographer who is sort of similar to Sherman but in a different, harder world for women.

Cindy Sherman 2

Tomoko Sawada was born when Cindy Sherman was already at the top. Sawada graduated in photography in the late 1990s and started her career in photography with the ID-400 project, which consisted in taking portraits of herself in a photo booth in a Kobe train station. Everytime, she was a different person. Sawada took 400 ID photos of apparently different people. That is was her discourse was about. Since then, she has been potraying Japanese women in the highly patriarchal Japanese society. Some of the themes she tackles include young women’s self-representation through clothes and Tokyo’s subcultures; women working outside the home in a country that still expects women to get married and become housewives after college; classism in the working world; marriage agencies where parents put photos of their daughters to find a suitor; the influence of Western trends in young Japanese women, etc.
In a sense, Sawada’s and Sherman’s discourses have some similitudes, but I think Sawada is more realistic (Cindy is more into fiction than Tomoko). Her presence in this list is important because she poses problems women in other parts of the world have to deal with. It’s not all about the Western world.

Tomoko Sawada

And now let’s veer towards a more inner world, for example, that of Claude Cahun’s, highly autobiographical work. She was a photographer and a writer and was related to the surrealists. She was also part of theatre groups, which can be noticed in her photographs. Cahun is in a constant quest for herself. She deals with genre identity, homosexuality, androgyny, etc. Her work went rather unnoticed at the time, especially because of the intimate nature of it, but a little later it was rediscovered. She fought in the resistance against the Nazis and was detained by the Gestapo and almost executed. Sadly, part of her work is missing.

Claude Cahun

Born in 1958 to artist parents, Francesca Woodman started very early to use the language of photography. Her body of work is small because her life was short. She lived in the United States and in Italy and ended up settling in New York. Woodman would go to run-down abandoned Victorian houses to make medium-format self-portraits and photographs of still lives and of other girls. Francesca Woodman’s photographs are full of sensitivity. In her self-portraits, she looks as if she’s about to fade away, as if she were a spirit living in the abandoned houses. Her photographs show she was into surrealism and futurism. In New York she tried to become a fashion photographer, but her portfolio went mostly unnoticed. That and a breakup led her to commit a failed suicide attempt in 1980 and a successful one the following year, after she threw herself off her Manhattan’s studio window at the age of 22.

Next in our list is Montreal-born contemporary photographer Laurence Philomene. She makes portraits of herself and others and has some pretty good still lives in her portfolio. I love what she does. One of the things that most interests me about her besides her brutal experimentation with color is her work Me vs Others in which she portraits herself imitating her friends. Characterized with an orange wig (like Laurence’s hair) and her own clothes, she portraits herself through her friends, placing them in her universe of pastel colors or interacting with things she likes or represent her. I think Laurence’s work is very tender and I also love it because she glorifies friendship and celebrates inspiration through self-portraying. Other photographers featured in her work include Arvida Bystrom, Molly Matalon, Vivian Fu, and Hobbes Ginsberg.

Laurence Philomene

I feel I’m leaving tons of people out. If I were working with my computer right know I would find lots more in my image folder, as I have been collecting the work of interesting people for years. I would also like to expand more on self-portraying, inner worlds, self-representation, portraits in the world of photography, etc., themes I’m really passionate about, but I don’t want to write a long post. If you want to have a coffee with me and talk about this, I’d be delighted. Or maybe you’d like to join me to see Vivian Maier’s Photoespaña exhibition, which I haven’t seen yet!