By documenting the physical realities of a certain place in time, a photographic self-portrait can verify the invisible inner realities of the artist, placing their inner realities next to what was physically in front of the camera. These inner realities may be information that the artist wishes to share with the world, or they may be a way for the artist to understand parts of the “self” in a more objective way. Through a larger body of work containing multiple photographic self-portraits, an autobiography begins to unfold. A “collection of self-portraits eventually becomes a kaleidoscope of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors that reveal a more complete, multifaceted design of who the photographer is.”—John Suler (Suler) A photographic portrait allows emotions that are difficult to explain with words to become visible through the image. Pierre Molinier and Virginia Oldoini (the Countess of Castiglione), both used photographic self-portraiture to make visible less-visible parts of themselves; by placing the physically visible in context with their invisible inner realities, the artists give the invisible a physical embodiment within the photograph.
In photographing a person, it is possible to capture part of their essence. While this is an exciting possibility, this sort of photograph is not easily made or found. Roland Barthes describes our response to being aware that our picture is being taken; it’s a response that happens automatically. As soon as we are aware of the camera, we begin to shift our bodies into a stance that we use when we know our photo is being taken: the camera interrupts whatever we were engaged with before its presence was made known. For this reason, the photograph documents a postured stance reflecting our feelings about how we are supposed to look in a photograph. The body becomes an object that stands in to represent who we are. Roland Barthes describes in his book, Camera Lucida, the process of looking to find a picture of his departed mother that captured her essence, so that the image could quell his grief. He did not want an image that captured her in a postured stance, but an image that captured her essence in the way he had come to know it in his day-to-day interactions with her. This ultimately proved to be a long, drawn-out task, and he was only able to find a single suitable photograph. It could not be enlarged to show greater detail, because the quality of the photograph did not allow for that. The solitary image could never fully satisfy the grieving son. (Barthes)
Perhaps an alternate route to arriving at an image that captures the essence of a person is not through looking for the occasional photograph in which the subject was unaware of the camera. Instead the artist takes control of the camera by simultaneously operating the machine and being its subject. Being aware that the camera has the power to influence their stance, the artist can thoughtfully, deliberately position their body so that photograph truly communicates what they need to convey. The stance the artist takes reveals something that is unseen by the outside world, a way of holding the body that is planned and resists moving into more traditional or automatic stances for being photographed.
By taking a stance in front to the camera, the artist becomes both photographer and actor. Roland Barthes compares photography to theater, “if Photography seems to me closer to the Theater, it is by way of a singular intermediary….by way of Death… the first actors separated themselves form the community by playing the role of the Dead.” (Barthes) He says that we undergo a sort of death when in front of the camera, we stand in for ourselves as an object in the photograph. He describes that actors are “playing the role of the Dead,” and that there is a parallel between theatre and photography in this way. By the artist standing in for themselves in the image as an object, this becomes an opportunity to position their body in such a way that it not only represents their physical reality, but reenacts the invisible realities within them, which become part of the visible reality of the photographic image. Now the artist will play the part of actor in order to also fulfill their role as an image maker. By acting in front of the lens this becomes a way of redirecting the photograph to become something that can express what is inside of a person. Although this inner reality that it is expressed may not document parts of a person’s daily routine, it can bring into view the essence of the person.
As a person recognizes their own likeness in an image, their own face which they can touch in the flesh, the invisible realities about themselves sitting parallel to this physical reality become reinforced by seeing them situated together in the photograph. Psychology recognizes that the “self” is comprised of many different parts and that not all of these parts fit neatly together. Self-portraits allow a person to explore parts of themselves that may not be easily understood, parts of themselves that words fail to describe accurately. Photographic self-portraits give a person a more objective way of looking at and of understanding themselves. “The self-portraiture process can generate a sense of mastery over formerly vague or even threating aspects of self”—John Suler (Suler) The self-portrait allows for freedom to express and investigate parts of the self that couldn’t be explored in other areas of the person’s life. The photograph “stimulates the ‘observing-self’—that part of you that can step back and look at your identity objectively.”—John Suller (Suler). In the photographic self-portrait, the image records what was physically in front of the camera. In doing this the author of the image may have the ideas about themselves reinforced by seeing what they wanted to express symbolically manifested through what they know and can see was directly in front of the camera.
Understanding that photographic self-portraiture can help a person explore different sides of themselves may seem intuitive to us in our own contemporary, first-world reality with cameras being so easily accessible on our phones, with us almost all the time. “By 2012, 86% of the population of the US had a cell phone, lagging behind a host of countries like the UK, Italy, Spain and China.” --Pamela Rutledge (Rutledge). There is the question of whether the staggering number of selfies taken in contemporary cultures is a reflection of narcissism or the by-product of self-reflection and exploration enhanced by new media. In the 15th century, the invention of the mirror changed portraiture in that artists could then paint self-portraits. (Rutledge) A multitude of photographs could be seen not only as a stage upon which the artist acts, but as a mirror. Each photograph is like a mirror that captures different angles of the interior of the artist. Here, a multitude of photographs replaces the mirror in capturing both what is physically visible while expressing through the stances captured in the image what is hidden within the individual.
Pierre Molinier and Virginia Oldoini (the Countess of Castiglione), were both artists who were outsiders in their own time, who gave invisible realities a physical and visible reality within the photographic self-portraits that they made. These are two artists who, each in their own way, created photographic images that explored their inner psyche. Individual images from each artist’s body of work range from introspective and imaginative, to at times disturbing. When viewing each artist’s body of work as a whole, however, the images read as part of a deeper narrative about the inner realities of the artist. The sides that each artist explores are not sides that would have been accepted in the time period in which they lived. On a fantastical level, their photographic self-portraits illustrate the sides of a person that can’t be expressed in day to day life. Their photographic images are intense and unusual. I propose that a driving force behind making these bodies of work was to explore ideas and concepts about themselves that were invisible to the outside world-- invisible parts of themselves that they wanted to more deeply understand in the context of discovering and shaping their own identify.
Pierre Molinier’s photographic self-portraits expressed his inner feelings and desires, most often relating to sexuality. He began exploring the medium of photography at the age of 18, where he quickly learned that reality could be confused in a photograph and doing so could reflect something more real that would not otherwise be seen. Later in life, Molinier met Surrealist Andre Breton, who encouraged him in his artistic endeavors, naming him the “magician of erotic art”. In 1959 after showing some of his paintings at the Bordeaux Salon, Molinier was shunned from the art world, because the “degree of his artistic perversity was deemed too much for the French cultural elite”—Brennavan Sritharan (Sritharan). Molinier had designed his gravestone 26 years before his death with the inscription, “Here lies Pierre Molinier, born on 13 April 1900, died around 1950. He was a man without morals; he didn’t give a fuck of glory and honour; useless to pray for him." The artist, who loved guns, shot himself at the age of 76. (Skidmore). The sentiment of the gravestone he designed can be seen in his many photographic works that are irreverent to the cultural norms of the time in which he lived. He was an outsider to the culture he lived in, and his photographic images gave him a place to explore sides of himself that would be shunned in day to day life.
In his erotic images, Molinier often uses his own body, frequently dressing as a woman, with multiple limbs collaged into the photograph to create erotic mythical-like figures. These figures take on dominatrix or devil-like personas. (Skidmore) A single photograph of Molinier can pull a viewer into a world where the body can move without limitations; multi-limbed people engage in erotic role play. In some images, it becomes unclear if the portrait is of a single individual with many limbs, or if there are many individuals intertwined. Themes are repeated: that of the figure who has both male and female body parts, figures that appear to be part of one body and yet be separate bodies at the same time, fetish impulses, and figures that have demonic appearances. These images shock on their own, and as a body of work they reflect Malinier’s desire to abandon cultural norms regarding sexuality and allow for a place where he could express his inner longings.
The photographs made by Molinier were made for his own pleasure first and foremost. He did, however, have an awareness of an audience and hoped that his viewer would become aware of their own repressed feelings around fetishism and eroticism. (Skidmore) Images ranged from Molinier being dressed in fishnets and corset to self-sodomisation “with a cleverly devised home-made dildo which the artist attached to the high heel of his shoe.” (Gale) Molinier looked to shock his audience, to leave them with an image that would get under their skin and make the viewer rethink their own impulses related to sexuality. If these photographs are a stage, Molinier is at the center delivering a monologue through the images that reveals the artist’s perspective on sexuality.
Molinier’s photographs appear wildly impossible, while having the actual body of the artist captured on film. Finding a place for his fetish desires to exist in the outside world may have been difficult or even impossible; therefore the photograph becomes a place where these parts of the artist can be made visible. The quality that photography has, of capturing that which was in front of the camera, combined with costuming and collaging of images, gives a physical nature to the fetish impulses that were condemned in his own culture. Molinier’s self-portraits capture parts of his body that were in front of the camera in real life, then the artist collaged multiple body parts together in the photograph. In doing this the photographic image carries an authority that is different from images that he painted. It is as though the photograph verifies that just as the artist was really in front of the lens, invisible parts inside of the artist, along with what appears to be physically impossible, must have also been in front of the lens. As Molinier can recognize his own face and body within the photograph, seeing his invisible yet very real feelings embodied in the photograph allows for those feelings to become not only visible, but validated.
Molinier used his body as the medium, just as much as the film and camera were his medium, in his erotic self-portraits. “His importance lies not in the power of his work to affect a contemporary audience, but in his position in the development of performance art”-- Iain Gale (Gale) In his work, he not only stretches what the camera can do to him as the subject, but as the subject he puts his body into an assortment of positions and costumes, working on the image from the side of the camera that receives his image. By performing—playing a role in front of the camera that reveals his inner longings—Molinier sidesteps being manipulated into a pose by the camera. Instead he picks the stance his body will be in. Frequently he positions his legs in a classically feminine pose that seems to akin to both pinup girls of the 1940’s and Titian’s Venus of Urbino. He often wears a mask covering his eyes, but his head is positioned towards the camera, clearly showing his awareness of the camera. Unlike Titian’s Venus looking passively towards the viewer, Molinier smiles back mischievously at the camera. He takes what he wants from the medium, using its ability to capture his physical nature, and then uses his body as an additional and equally important medium by performing his inner realities in front of the camera.
By understanding that authorship is more complex than simply who pushes a button on a camera in a self-portrait, that it is also about how the artist uses their body as part of the medium, we see Virginia Oldoini as the author of the hundreds of photographs taken of her. Oldoini was married off to Count di Castiglione at the age of 17, becoming the Countess of Castiglione. The union was an unhappy one, with the Countess bankrupting and cheating on the Count with well-to-do men in Paris. She gained fame not only for her beauty, but her liaisons with powerful men: she was for example, albeit briefly, the mistress of Napoleon III. She is now best known for the staggering number of photographs taken of her throughout her life. She worked in collaboration with photographer Louis Pierson over the course of thirty years, resulting in hundreds of photographs of the Countess. The majority of these were taken between 1856-1865, at the height of both her fame and beauty. Her beauty was widely publicized, becoming a central part of her identity in addition to her diva-like personality. While she had many men in her life, it is reported that she would not speak to women. (Boxer) It is reasonable to say that in her lifetime she was reduced to her looks. Through photographic self-portraiture she was able to create a place for both reflecting on the narrow role that society assigned her as an object to be gazed upon, then later in life confront her feelings surrounding aging and mortality.
In her photographs, the Countess works with her awareness of being gazed upon as a woman and uses her own body as a medium for expressing her vanity, vulnerability, and mortality. The Countess took authorship in her portraits by “dictating the pose, costume, props and accessories”—Abigail Solomon-Godeau.(Solomon-Godeau) Though Louis Pierson’s hands were on the camera, the Countess is also author of these images. These older photographs not only speak to her vanity, but show a fear of mortality. She addresses her mortality by being photographed in dresses she wore during her prime in her last series of photographs. The photograph of her leg as she is reclined looks as though she could be in a coffin; it is very visually direct about her invisible fears surrounding death, and gives these feelings a physical location in the photograph. (Solomon-Godeau)
Like the photographs produced by Pierre Molinier, the photographs of the Countess of Castiglione were by and large produced for herself. While the Countess is often accused of narcissism, I propose that there is something more substantial and interesting at play. This is a woman looking at how the world views her and navigating through her feelings about the oppressive gaze that defined so much of her reality. Much like Pierre Molinier used the photographic self-portraits as a way of having a place for himself when his culture did not allow that for him, the Countess creates a place of reflection for what her culture has imposed upon her with its limiting roles for women. She played the parts of many different women in her self-portraits: ranging from a nun, literary characters, or a nurse to her dying dog, to name a few. Though not a professional actress in real life, the photographs become a place for her to explore different roles, possibly different selves that are part of her, upon the stage that is her self-portrait.
What makes her photographs so interesting is that there is an intelligence behind the work.
“The countess was a Surrealist, or, to adapt Andre Breton's phrase, the original convulsive beauty. Long before Surrealism existed, she discovered its tricks one by one. She created alternative identities for herself. She used mirrors to fragment and multiply images. And she had an obsession with eyes and detached body parts.”—Sarah Boxer (Boxer)
Long before Surrealism was a movement, the Countess was discovering ways of working with everyday imagery and infusing it with the illogical, improbable, and impossible. It’s important to look beyond her narcissism to see that she had found a way of working with a photographic image that was ahead of its time. These images are not simply her recording her physical appearance; she is also documenting her inner realities in a way that showed her keen awareness of what the camera could do with her image.
In the photographs of the Countess taken towards the end of her life, she wears many of the dresses that she wore as a young woman. This can be seen as a sad attempt of trying to hold onto her youth, or a moment of intense vulnerability, of recognizing that her beauty, which she was so famous for, is no longer. It is easy to imagine the feeling of putting on a garment from decades past and feeling its uncomfortable, unflattering fit. In addition to the garment’s poor fit on the aged body, it is likely that the garment is no longer in fashion. Just as time has worn down the Countess, it has also had its way upon the fabric and seams of the clothing. The garments’ ill fit would be an uncomfortable reminder of the passing of time, amplifying insecurities and the awareness of the brevity of life. This notion that she was looking to speak to themes of mortality is supported by photographs of her taken in a coffin or pictures of her dead dog. The stance that her body takes gives a physical and visible reality to her inner realities. “As the countess grew older and less beautiful, she began showing body parts disconnected from the body.”—Sarah Boxer (Boxer) By taking the body apart in the photograph, she addresses the idea of the body falling apart, of aging and the eventual end that awaits all of us.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau suggests that these images of the Countess in her later years were an attempt to undo time, which Solonmon-Godeau supports by pointing out that the Countess went so far as to tamper with the images. I agree that tampering with the images “suggests the depth of her identification with them” -- Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau). In accepting that the Countess is the author of these images, we must look at this tampering as further manipulation of her own art piece. Thus she is free to continue to make adjustments to the image after it is developed. This further manipulation can be seen as an intense emotional reaction to mortality, to the loss of her beauty, which at one point was what she was reduced to, and now even that is gone.
Many of her photographs from earlier years were also painted on. An earlier work of interest in terms of manipulating the image came during a custody dispute between her and her husband over their son Giorgio. The Countess sent her husband a photograph altered in a way that amplified the drama in the image. This portrait she titled “Vengeance”. In the photograph her hair is left undone, long wild curls hang down, situated on top of her head is a crown. In her hand is a dagger. The image is hand painted in rich red hues to add an additional layer of drama. The image was effective; the custody dispute ended with the Countess keeping her son (Boxer). It seems evident that her estranged husband recognized this less visible part of the Countess through the image, and decided to withdraw his claim for custody.
The manipulations that the Countess made to her images are in a similar line of thinking to how Molinier collaged body parts from other photographs to make the self that he desired to express. It is worth considering the views of Vilem Flusser on the role that the camera plays in relation to the operator when looking at the work of both Pierre Molinier and the Countess of Castglione, and the adjustments these artists made to their images after the photographs were developed. Flusser states that the camera gives the artist a finite amount of choices to work with, and that the artist must understand these choices well if they are to make an image that is truly of their design and not one in which the machine dictated the image through its own restrictions. When the operator of the camera does not understand the limited choices that the camera gives, it become easy for them to just create multiple pedestrian images that document places that the camera has been—nothing more than that. Flusser says that “freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera.” To gain this freedom the operator can:
“First outwit the camera’s rigidity. Second, one can smuggle human intention in the program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative. Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information.” -- Vilem Flusser (Flusser)
The Countess of Castiglione outwitted the camera’s rigidity with the use of mirrors in her images. What was reflected back in the direction of the camera became something that did not have the appearance of being possible. Both the Countess and Molinier understood the importance of the stance that they took and the costuming of their bodies so that the camera was capturing something more than just their physical appearance. What is truly exciting though, is how both artists understood that to make an image that communicated exactly what they wanted to communicate, they could achieve this by further manipulating the image after the film was developed. At this point the limitations of the camera are surpassed and the authors of the images are able to give a visible, physical embodiment to the less visible parts of themselves. The Countess achieved this by having the images painted, while Molinier did this by collaging many photographic images together. Manipulating the photograph after it is developed expands the artist’s latitude in how to give a physical reality to the invisible parts of themselves.
Seeing our own photographic likeness in an image verifies for us that we were in front of the camera. When finding a way to enact an invisible part of the self in front of the camera, it becomes a way of verifying that that part of oneself was also there. Pierre Molinier and the Countess of Castiglione, by expressing different inner realities, use the camera as a way to document the invisible. Inside the photograph, with all the blurring of boundaries and possibilities, they can see these sides of themselves existing in a place where they are powerful and essential to the reality of the image. The potential in photographic self-portraiture to make the intimacies of one’s thoughts and emotions into a visual reality is available to all of us. That could be the appeal behind the selfie, to see what we know is there, are not sure how to articulate, but can recognize in the self-portrait. We choose a stance, an angle, and capture invisible parts of ourselves so that we can better understand and construct our identities.
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Sritharan, Brennavan. "The Sexually Transgressive Work of Pierre Molinier, the Forgotten Surrealist." British Journal of Photography (2015). Print.
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