Women’s Identity (1975 – 1979) Angela Kelly
This essay, Kelly examines the use and mis-use of self portraiture, to quote Kelly: to determine what relevance a seemingly private practice has to a public audience. (p.410, Wells, 2003).
Kelly suggests in her essay, that at the time of writing, self-portraiture had not been properly analysed. As with most photography, assumptions are made and essential questions rarely asked. Pictures cannot be considered simple. Photographers need to be aware of who they are communicating to and how the original intent of their work is affected by the context in which it is viewed. (p.410, Wells, 2003).
In self-portraiture related work, Kelly questions and challenges the visual statements from artists, as works that ‘speak‘ for themselves, by simply accepting the underlying message without question. …one should acknowledge art as language of form within definite cultural parameters….It seems from my observation that the term ‘self-expression’ and self-portraiture’ have become synonymous….The association between self-portraiture and self-indulgence or vanity still prevails. The relationship that can exist between self-portraiture and self-awareness is rarely understood. (p.410, Wells, 2003).
One simple definition of a self-portrait is that the artist/photographer makes an image purporting to reveal the ‘inner’ character of the sitter as opposed to a likeness. (p.411, Wells, 2003). Kelly refers to artist such as Steichen, Cobern and Rembrandt who used self-portraiture to express both their art and skills for self-expression; but points out that the early photographers trying to support their own credibility as artists, appropriated the painters approach, making the content of their art the expression of the artist. missing the point that work such as Rembrandt’s was also showing the inventory of a changing self-image. (p.411, Wells, 2003).
Kelly writes: …the position of the ‘self-expressive individual artist’ is an ironic one. The illusion is that the artist is expressing her/himself. The reality is that any attempt at critically examining a concept of self in a wider social context is treated as taboo, as self-indulgence. We may look in the mirror only to check our appearance, not to see through it. (p.411, Wells, 2003). Kelly further criticises this use of self-expression: The use of self-expression in practice has also become synonymous with photographic ‘seeing’ – ways of ordering , selecting, and fragmenting the world through the camera. Holding up views as singular realities, an individualist view without any wider perspective. This approach tells us less about the actual world and more about a photographically viewed world. The subject of photographs becomes photography. (p.411, Wells, 2003).
From a political angle, Kelly discusses the photography and writings of Jo Spence and referring to Spence’s essay, facing up to myself, (1978) and her involvement and her identification with the feminist movement. Kelly critically looks at how Spence tries to bridge the gap between how women are presented in the media and the more positive and active images of women produced by women themselves. Kelly points out that the photographs Spence uses are mostly from her family album illustrating how she looked to the world at different stages of her life; but without the text the photographs would be nothing more than a series of banal pictures, making literal rather than visual statements. (p.412, Wells, 2003). Kelly has several problems with Spence’s photographs entitled, ‘feminist portrait‘. The fact that a feminist shot the pictures of feminist hardly makes the content a feminist one. They can be seen as feminists, insofar as both the pose and expression of Jo Spence is a neutral one, the very opposite to the glamour poses of the media…..The problem of dealing with self-portraiture for me is whether I can make feminism the central issue, and how to put that across. Using sexist imagery or stereotyped images can be misread as perpetuating sexist ideology. (p.412-413, Wells, 2003).
Kelly admits that her early self-portraits show more of her concern with photography than with a changing self-image. It wasn’t until much later that she placed the pictures next to each other and combined them with text that, she could see a developing consciousness of self. (p.413, Wells, 2003). Kelly is concerned how women see themselves and how much their self-image defines their behaviour and limits their role. She believes that women tend to model their own images as to what they believe is socially acceptable. Which she claims, is generally a distorted male concept of femininity. (p.413, Wells, 2003). She points out that: There are few images of women which express typically ‘male’ – associated feelings of assertion, aggression, activity, self-confidence, etc. Yet positive images of women (although helpful for other women) do not point out the discrepancies between how women actually are and how they are reflected in the media. Congenial active images of ourselves are good role models which women badly need but it is not enough to present more idealistic images of ourselves. What need to be challenged are the images and role stereotypes that are reinforced daily through the media. (p.413-416, Wells, 2003) Kelly believes that her photographs are an attempt to challenge the stereotypical idea, and she sees them as a positive step towards defining her own sexuality and redefining her role from a feminist perspective.