Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Self-portraits by Women Photographers in The 1920's and 1930's

The “New Woman” – also known as a “flapper” or “garçonne” – soon epitomized the 1920s and, with her bobbed hairstyle, straight shift dress and long cigarette holder, was to be found everywhere in Europe. Their enthusiasm for these values and the opportunity of expressing themselves artistically or journalistically led many educated young women to work as professional photographers. It was both through the development of lightweight, hand-held cameras (Ermanox, Rollei, Leica), which now relieved professional photographers, especially press photographers, of their heavy equipment, and through the enormous growth in illustrated magazines, many of which were aimed at a female readership, and the resultant sudden increase in the demand for photographers, that a completely new profession had now opened itself up to women in the field of commercial and industrial photography. Finally, during the 1930s and 1940s, women conquered the last male bastion of professional photography, that of war reportage. Gerda Taro, Germaine Krull, Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White were the most famous among them.

Here, an interesting gallery of self-portraits by women photographers in the twenties and thirties.

Germaine Krull, « Selbstporträt mit Ikarette », 1925, Sammlung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Zülpich © Estate Germaine Krull, Museum Folkwang, Essen. Courtesy : Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde / Pinakothek der Moderne München, 2011
 In 1925, Germaine Krull photographed herself in a mirror with a hand-held camera which half-covered her face. The camera is focused on the foreground of the image, such that the lens and the two hands holding the camera are sharp, while the face behind the camera is blurred. This self-portrait has given rise to many a feminist or professionally critical interpretation, ranging from the female domestication “of the masculinity of technical apparatus” through to the analogy of the camera with a weapon used by the photographer to “reduce the person opposite her […] to an impotent object”. However, if we attempt to interpret the photograph not so much in a figurative sense as in a concrete, phenomenal sense, we arrive at a completely opposite conclusion. By selecting the depth of field in such a way that only the camera and the hands are sharp, Germaine Krull has isolated her act of photographing from her subjectivity and individuality as the photographer. It is the technical apparatus, the camera, which is the focal point of the image and behind which the photographer’s face is blurred beyond recognition.

Andreas Feininger, « Der Fotojournalist » , 1955 © gettyimages / Andreas Feininger
 It is in the context of this Constructivist aesthetic that one might easily be tempted to interpret the fusion of face and camera as a typically male approach to technology. After all, we are familiar not least with Andreas Feininger’s famous portrait of the “Photojournalist” of 1955, in which not only one eye but both eyes of the photographer have been replaced by optical lenses, making his face look like that of an android. However, a comparison of this photograph with the self-portrait of the Swiss photographer Fred Boissonas, taken around the turn of the century, makes us cautious about making such gender-specific interpretations.

Fred Boissonnas, « Selbstporträt mit Kamera » , 1900, Archiv Borel-Boissonnas © Fred Boissonnas. Archives Borel-Boissonnas
 In this self-portrait of the photographer holding a twin-lens stereoscopic camera, the eye of the camera and the human eye are not yet congruent. Both of them, the mechanical eye and the still visible human eye, are on a level with one another. The photographer holds the camera trustingly against his cheek, looking at them searchingly and with a certain tenseness. Does he already suspect that this robot-like head with its two glass eyes will soon gain supremacy over human vision? The relationship between the photographer and his camera, expressed here in the juxtaposition of the human and the optical eye, reflects the reserved, critical attitude of the Pictorialists towards the photographic lens at the turn of the century. - Imogen Cunningham, a professional photographer since 1906, had photographed herself in a similar pose with a large-format camera in 1933.

Imogen Cunningham, « Self-Portrait with Korona View » , 1933 © The Imogen Cunningham Trust / www.imogencunningham.com
 Because the camera did not reproduce the world as people perceived it through their senses but as an unfeeling lens perceived it, the Pictorialists considered the photographic image to be an impersonal and hence false and distorted image of reality. They therefore sought to reduce its “merciless sharpness” with the aid of soft-focus lenses and complicated transfer printing processes, thereby suppressing all that was inessential and emphasizing those characteristic features which conformed to the subjective, reminiscent and emotional way in which the human eye perceived reality. Truth as the eye saw it and truth as the camera saw it did not become identical until the inception of modernism in the 1920s, when the human eye and the optical eye were finally thought to be congruent.

Whereas the mirror in which Germaine Krull photographed herself is invisible in the photograph, the self-portraits of other female photographers, such as Ilse Bing, Florence Henri and Lotte Jacobi, show the mirrors explicitly. Indeed, the deliberate incorporation of the mirror is typical of women photographers’ self-portraits of the 1920s. Many of their male counterparts also photographed themselves in mirrors, but these photographs were mostly snapshot-like photographs of themselves at their work, reflected in the distorting convex surfaces of car headlamps (Renger-Patzsch, Umbo, among others) or in distorting mirrors (Kertész), and were rather optical curiosities than works of self-discovery or introspection.

Ilse Bing, « Selbstporträt mit Leica » , 1931, Privatsammlung Paris © Estate of Ilse Bing
 Ilse Bing, who decided to take up the profession of photographer in 1929, portrayed herself in 1931 in the traditional style of an occupational portrait. As a former student of art history, Ilse Bing was undoubtedly familiar both with the famous “mirror paintings” of van Eyck, Parmiganino and Velazquéz and with the genre of the “self-portrait of the artist in his studio”. In this self-portrait, the tripod and camera have replaced the painter’s palette and easel. The photographer has mounted her Leica on a table tripod and is looking across the top of the camera into the mirror so as not to lose sight of herself behind the viewfinder, obviously not wishing to view this self-portrait with camera through the camera itself. Unlike Germaine Krull – and, later, Andreas Feininger – Bing rejected the absolute identification of the eye and/or entire person of the photographer with the camera lens. Her somewhat aloof attitude towards the Constructivist ideal of the artist-engineer was altogether in keeping with her work as a photojournalist which was on the whole more akin to Kertész than to Moholy-Nagy and conveyed rather a romantically poetical than a Constructivist view of the world.

Ilse Bing’s self-portrait shows the photographer at once fascinated by her rôle as an artist-engineer and reticent about it. The photograph does in fact contain two self-portraits. Whilst the image within the image portrays her in the pose of a land surveyor standing behind her measuring apparatus, her pose in the foreground is that of the photographer glancing over the top of her camera. This slightly aloof posture prevents the eye from becoming totally identifiable with the camera lens.

Lotte Jacobi, « Autoportrait » , 1937, Fotografische Sammlung im Museum Folkwang, Essen © The Lotte Jacobi Collection
 Compared with Ilse Bing’s artistically staged self-portrait, the photograph which the great portrait photographer Lotte Jacobi took of herself in New York in 1937 is almost like a snapshot. An elegant, self-aware young woman, holding her Leica at shoulder height, looks at herself searchingly in an oval dressing mirror. She is wearing a jaunty hat, as if she is just about to go out and is giving her appearance a final once-over prior to facing the public gaze. The momentariness of her pose and the cropped mirror lend the photograph an ephemeral quality. Jacobi’s self-portrait with her bobbed “flapper” hairstyle and the cigarette in her hand is reminiscent of her most famous photograph of the “New Woman”, namely her portrait of the actress Lotte Lenya of 1928, except that this photograph of herself has an additional, self-interrogating aspect. Indeed, this aspect has a twofold presence in the photograph. As though echoing the large reflection in the mirror, the photographer appears as a second, barely perceptible reflection in the bevelled edge of the mirror. She seems to be stepping back and viewing herself from behind. Is she perhaps still not quite sure about her appearance?

Florence Henri, « Selbstporträt » , 1928, Neuabzug 1974, Archiv Florence Henri, Galleria Martini & Ronchetti, Genua © Martini & Ronchetti, Genoa, Italy
 The paintress and photographer Florence Henri adopted a completely different approach. In her famous self-portrait with mirror and two pétanque balls, taken in 1928, she has photographed herself neither in her private environment nor in her studio nor in a public place, but, rather, in a kind of artificial space, an imagined space which, by reason of its elementary geometrical structure, we recognize as the aesthetic space of abstract Constructivism. It is the aesthetic cosmos of the “Académie Moderne” and the “Bauhaus”, two institutions at which Florence Henri had studied from 1925 until 1927. Whether Henri considered it necessary to use the two mirror-polished silver pétanque balls as symbols of her masculine identity in this male-dominated art world or simply used them as a means of fixing the mirror in place can no longer be factually ascertained. However, Henri’s bisexuality and the fact that she loved having her photograph taken at exhibition previews in trousers and a waiter’s waistcoat with a cigarillo in her hand, even at a very old age, do indeed point to the likelihood that she deliberately integrated these symbols of masculinity in her portrait of herself as an artist. At the time of its taking, Florence Henri was very unsure of her professional identity. She was a trained paintress who was about to change her profession. Thus she portrayed herself neither as a paintress nor as a photographer, but as an artist, as a proud and emancipated woman, her calm and serene bust-like pose awakening associations with the typical depictions of male heroes in classical Renaissance portraiture.

Ergy Landau, « Autoportrait » , 1932, Collection APH, Courtesy C. Bouqueret, Paris © Ergy Landau / Rapho
 From 1930 onwards, Florence Henri stood out as a specialist in objective, modern women’s portraiture. She did not shy away from nude depictions either, a purely male domain for the past thousands of years. From 1933 until 1939, she regularly supplied the erotic magazines “Paris Magazine” and “Paris Sex Appeal” with photographs of female nudes. This activity was one which Henri shared with Ergy Landau, a Hungarian photographer working in Paris since 1923 and one of two women photographers who, in 1933, had succeeded in being accepted into the midst of the male photographers at the “Premier Salon international du nu photographique” in Paris. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in 1932 Landau had already portrayed herself as a nude photographer. The photograph is obviously a very carefully prepared mise en scène, photographed by an assistant and following in the “painter and model” tradition. What is particularly striking about this photograph is that the photographer not only quite literally puts herself on the same level as the female model but also turns her face away from the camera. Unlike her male counterparts in this traditionally male genre of photography, the nude model in this photograph is not a passive object that subjects itself to the active, determining male gaze but rather a partner who not only enters into a visual dialogue with the photographer but also takes an active and determining part in the mise en scène. At the very moment the photograph is taken, the viewer’s gaze is made to perform a peculiar turn of direction, for just as the photographer is focussing her camera on the naked body of the model in front of her, the latter appears blurred in the photograph, while the dressed body of the photographer is absolutely sharp. Was it the photographer’s wish to remain anonymous when photographing another person in the nude – Florence Henri, for example, always spoke of her nude photographs in “Paris Sex Appeal” with a certain embarrassment, but somewhat coquettishly all the same – or was it her intention to liberate the scene from all sexual connotations and merely document it as a working situation which obliged her to turn her back on the camera?

Marianne Breslauer, « Die Fotografin » , 1933, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Marianne Breslauer Archiv © Marianne Breslauer Archiv/Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
 Quite different, to say the least, was Marianne Breslauer, a trained photographer like Ergy Landau and Germaine Krull. In a self-portrait taken in 1933, undoubtedly the most erotic self-portrait of a woman photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, this Berlin photographer poses, with her cable release in her hand, as a young woman obviously skilful at the game of concealing and revealing. She has deliberately opened her fashionable, fur-trimmed housecoat in order to view her beautiful naked body on the ground-glass screen of the camera. As she is standing to one side of the mirror, her face is hidden by her hair, heightening still further the subtle eroticism of this photograph. Her gaze into the viewfinder of the camera, as though refusing to look herself and, by the same token, the imagined viewer in the eye as she performs her exhibitionist act, seems modest and outdated compared with the erotic self-portraits of women photographers today.

Imogen Cunningham, « Self-Portrait, Grass Valley 2 » , 1946 © 1946, 2011 The Imogen Cunningham Trust / www.imogencunningham.com
 Shadow portraits cannot be interpreted purely in terms of their media-reflexivity as works of modernism, for they have an iconological significance, too. From time immemorial, the shadow has been a symbol of death – in the kingdom of the dead, for example, human beings live on as shadows.

The 1920s are the decade of masquerade in the history of modern art. Was it the coming of the cinema, that “Hades of the Living”, in which the protagonists forever assume new identities and “the shadows already become immortal while still alive”, or was it first and foremost the psychological consequences of the profound social changes following the First World War which made masks, disguises and rôle-playing the favourite means of self-stylization and self-discovery among artists and writers of both sexes?

Claude Cahun, « Frontière humaine », publiée dans la revue « Bifur » , n°5, avril 1930
 No other woman photographer of the 1920s ever transcended the boundaries of her own identity as actionistically as Claude Cahun. Deeply rooted in the literary aesthetic of the fin de siècle, Cahun lived the life of a female dandy in the literary and lesbian milieu of Paris. Convinced of the theatricality of life – “The happiest moments of your whole life? Dreaming. Imagining being different. Playing my favourite rôle.”; in 1936 she joined a theatrical group – making her own body the stage for her transgender masquerades. It is in her self-portraits, staged with the help of her life-long companion Suzanne Malherbe, that Claude Cahun confronts us – entirely in the sense of Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” – as a seductive young sailor, as a harlequin in front of the mirror, as Faust’s Gretchen, as an attractive lesbian with face mask, as a garçonne with motorcycle goggles, as Buddha, as a pucker-lipped weightlifter in a woman’s costume with painted-on nipples or as an actress wearing a cloak covered with masks.

Claude Cahun, « Autoportrait » , 1927, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, © RMN/Gérard Blot
Cahun’s counterpart among male artists was Marcel Duchamp. What their very different artistic temperaments had in common was, besides their poetical approach to life, their narcissism, their admiration for the philosopher Max Stirner (“The Ego and Its Own”)43 – or, to use Cahun’s words: “absolute egoism”.

Neither Claude Cahun nor Marcel Duchamp were professional photographers. She was an authoress, he was a visual artist, both of them obeying Baudelaire’s maxim that the imagination must always take precedence over reality. Duchamp’s game with sexual identities was bound up with his aesthetic of the possible. “The figuration of a possible./ (not as the opposite of impossible / nor as related to probable / nor as subordinated to likely)”, he writes in one of his often sibylline notes during the period around 1915, “the possible is only/ a physical ‘caustic’ (vitriol type) / burning up all aesthetics or callistics”. Whether aesthetic or poetical, both Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun had an open way of thinking which gave priority to intellectual inventiveness, to the sheer pleasure of thinking what had never been thought before. If they are nowadays regarded as the most important artists of their day, then it is because at that time, when the discourse on truth and progress in the movements of classical modernism (Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism) was at its peak, they were already practising a “post-modern” aesthetic concept based on the constant transcendence of given boundaries, a concept in which dogmas, definitions and limitations counted for nothing, a concept in which the one always revealed itself as the other.

This original article was written by Herbert Molderings & Barbara Mülhens-Molderings and publish on Jeu de Paume/le magazine.

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1 comment :

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