Marking the Transformation

Tim’s request for Dylan’s Self Portrait album reminds me of a conversation I had with some of the students at St. Edwards University last weekend.
It’s somewhat of an artistic canon, esp. in photography for people to make self-portraits. We’ve seen countless art projects that look inward and examine autobiographical concerns. We’ve all got them on those first black and white contact sheets when we were asked by art teachers to make photographs. So why? What is the desire to make artful serious photographs of oneself?
It seems to speak of the power images in general. From the beginnings or art many recognized the power of images; we’re affected by them emotionally, spiritually and even sometimes physically. We react viscerally when standing in front of the thing, photography adds to this through it’s realism, furthering the command of the viewer through recognition.
In a self-portrait the image seems to give the creators some sense of control. Perhaps in the many self portraits of Vincent van Gogh he aimed to reconcile and gain control in the image over what he feels he has little control in real life, his psychology. Following this thread I can’t help but make connections like this painting of Van Gogh after damaging himself:

to another damaged self-portrait:

this one by Nan Goldin after an attack by a former lover. These images in some way give the creator some sense of power over their powerless situation, (Vincent a victim of himself, Nan a victim of another).
When talking with photographer Sybil Miller she remarked, ‘Self-portrait’s can also mark a transformation or life event, much like a when people get tattoos’. This also fits and brings to mind more recent self-portrait photographs and video made by Seung-Hui Cho.

I do not mean to insinuate that Cho’s aims were at all artistic but more so perhaps also an attempt to ‘mark a transformation’ and perhaps as well gain power through images. That his intent was the dissemination of the images through the mass media makes what could be a rather frighteningly odd and awkward video and photographic performance into a haunting and humbling reminder of how in fact fragile our human minds can become.


  1. Posted April 23, 2007 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Brian, it’s funny — someone recently referred me to this article.

  2. Posted April 23, 2007 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I am the writer, director of ‘THE EYES OF VAN GOGH,’a full length film that was just released. Iv’e spent many, many years researching the life of Van Gogh. What you say about Vincent’s reason for doing self portraits is interesting but not really applicable to him. It’s much less complicated. There is a huge misconception that Vincent’s greatest passion was landscapes, when in fact it was portraiture, and he states so numerous times in his letters. There is a line in my film which sums up his ultimate goal in painting: ‘I want to paint portaits that a 100 years from now will appear like apparitions to the people seeing them. They would be like ghosts, the living spirits of the dead, thinking, feeling, striving, eternal life.’Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult for him to get people to pose because he couldn’t afford to pay them, they were afraid of him and they hated what he made of them. This is the reason for the many portraits of Roulin and his wife and family. And,of course, his self portraits[Only Rembrandt did more]. If your’e interested in more about Vincent, his mental condition, etc.,check out my website,

  3. sybil
    Posted April 23, 2007 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Brian, it was great having you in town last weekend — Shane’s link is really interesting, how we all take pictures of ourselves like this (or at least most of us do). I know I do it, and in wondering why, it’s partially to mark a point in time — “this is me, now” — but also, i think, it’s out of curiosity about how we look — do any of us really know what we look like to others? i know how i feel, and i’m often surprised at the disconnect between the person i feel i am and how i look in pictures. i would NEVER show these self-portraits to anyone, my true self is in my other photographs. but i look at them (before I delete them) and sometimes wonder who it is, exactly, that i’m looking at. it seems much easier sometimes to understand something about another person than about oneself.

  4. Posted May 19, 2007 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    One hell of a publicity stunt.

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