Self-Portrait Photography

A Little Self(ie) Love

Whether you love them or hate them, selfies have become a large part of self-representation in contemporary culture. Though the term selfie tends to refer specifically to photographs taken using camera phones and for the purpose of being posted on social media, the selfie is not the first time that people have used art as a means of self-portrayal. The format began with the rise of self-portrait paintings in the Renaissance, with photographers taking up the tradition of self-portraiture in later centuries and selfies, eventually, becoming a child of photographic self-portraiture.

Though selfies are often seen as throwaway images, in a sense, the same attention to poses and how the individual is portrayed forms a connection between the selfie and self-portraiture. Over the decades, Swann has sold a number of photographic self-portraits from vernacular works to fine art photographs. Below are six of our photography department specialist, Jessica Hunter’s, top photographic “selfies” we have offered.

Edward S. Curtis, Self- Portrait in Felt Hat, 1899

Edward S. Curtis, Self-Portrait in Felt Hat, photogravure, 1899. Sold in our October 2019 sale of Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $10,625.

Though he is known for his photography of Native American communities, this portrait of Edward Curtis shows the photographer towards the beginning of his career. Curtis entered a brief apprenticeship in photography in Minnesota, and in 1891 he moved to Seattle, purchasing his own camera and a share in a local photography studio. This self-portrait, taken in 1899 follows only four years after he took his first photograph of Native American peoples living near Seattle and is prior to his historic work on the North American Indian project. The photograph depicts the 31-year old Curtis at a time when his work was well-known throughout Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. In the image, he is depicted gazing out towards the view with confidence with his trademark beard and stylish clothing. This self-portrait depicts not only Curtis’ charm but also his self-confidence and success.

1940s Photo Booth Selfies

This group of approximately 50 photo-booth selfies of the same man depicted with a range of expressions from wide grins to a solemn, stoic demeanor is appealing for the sheer number of photographs the individual took of himself over a period of time. The Photomatic photo booth was made by the International Mutoscope Reel Company in New York from the mid-1930s into the 1940s, with machines located in major locations such as New York subway and train stations and even the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Though we don’t know the name of the man in the photographs, the mystery makes them so appealing. Why did he take so many images of himself? Did he intend to build up a collection of images of himself or was he part of the maintenance for these machines and taking these images was part of that process? Though he is often dressed in a button-down work shirt, there are occasions where he is dressed up in a suit. Though we may never know, the appeal of these framed works ties back into our desire to photographs ourselves today. The mystery lives on!

1940 Photo Booth Self-Portrait of Marilyn Monroe

A photo booth self-portrait of Marilyn Monroe when she was still Norma Jeane Baker, circa 1940. Sold in our December 2014 sale of Vernacular Imagery, Photobooks & Fine Photographs for $18,750.

Marilyn Monroe is one of the most photographed Hollywood stars of the twentieth century, and because of this, it is rare to see images of her before that stardom, particularly where she has posed herself. Much like the photobooth self-portraits mentioned above, there is a charm to early photo booth images of individuals. The subject has the ability to represent themselves for the camera how they wish, which we don’t see as often with figures as iconic as Marilyn Monroe. The sweet photograph of the young soon-to-be Hollywood figure circa 1940 shows her with her curly brown hair, a cheerful grin and wide-brimmed hat. I love the innocence and playfulness of this photograph and for a more casual photograph of the often posed and primped starlet.

Related Reading: The Making of a Portrait: Michael Halsband’s Photograph of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Weegee 1950s Self-Portraits

Weegee, Self-Portrait, ferrotyped silver print, circa 1950. Sold in our October 2019 sale of Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $4,000.
Weegee, Self-Portrait Distortion, ferrotyped silver print, circa 1950. Sold in our February 2020 sale of Fine Photographs for $2,125.

The famous street photographer known for his documenting of crimes and emergencies In New York City was certainly no stranger to self-portraiture. Weegee took numerous self-portraits of himself, many conveying his playful nature and sense of humor.  In a seemingly more direct self-portrait, Weegee is seen staring out at the viewer, holding his Graflex camera with a cigar casually dangling from his mouth, almost the stereotype of a film noir character. The humorous caption “hello self” on his camera hinting at his quirky sense of humor. A second self-portrait exhibits Weegee’s extraordinary darkroom skills. In the mid-1940s, Weegee began making his first distortions through darkroom processes. This self-portrait of the mirrored Wegee with squashed facial features, his mouth with two of his iconic cigars exhibits his wit and playfulness.

Francesca Woodman, Self-Portrait, Birch Sleeves,

Francesca Woodman, Self-Portrait, Birch Sleeves, silver print, 1975–78, printed later. Sold in our 2017 sale of Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks for $2,860.

Though she lived a very short life, committing suicide at age 22, Francesca Woodman was a prolific photographer who made over 800 photographs during her lifetime. Many of these works depicted female models, but Woodman is also known for her self-portraits, which she began taking at 13, and of which there are many. These works have been widely studied and lauded by art historians and other critics as photographic explorations of a sense of self and identity. This self-portrait of Woodman in which the bark of birch trees has made into fingerless gloves plays into her interests in Surrealism. Her bark-wrapped arms are posed, appearing like tree trunks out of which her human form grows. The beautifully lit and composed work with its small dimensions forms an intimate interaction between the subject and viewer.

Related Reading: 5 Portrait Photographers To Inspire Your Collection

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Self-Portrait as Lucille Ball, chromogenic print, 1975, printed 2001. Sold in our February 2018 sale of Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks for $25,000.
Cindy Sherman, Self-Portrait in Swimsuit, chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal archive paper, 1983, printed 2000. Sold in our February 2018 sale of Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks for $7,250.

Cindy Sherman is known for her “self-portrait” images in which she takes on different guises to transform herself into specific characters, historical and fictional. Though these may not be explorations of her own identity, Sherman’s photographs explore and emphasize how we use images, poses, and costumes to construct identity and convey certain aspects of ourselves to the outside world. In her self-portrait as Lucille Ball, Sherman mimics the poses, makeup and style of the 1950s star. By transforming herself into Lucille Ball visually, the image becomes a portrait of another person rather than an expected self-portrait, revealing how identity can be altered and manipulated. The same concept is visible in her self-portrait in a swimsuit. Though it is an image of Sherman, her use of wigs, costumes, and posture create the impression of another person rather than a typical self-portrait. The idea of constructed identity and how we convey ourselves to others relates directly into the concept of the selfie, images that are carefully composed and created to convey certain aspects of our lives to those on the outside.

Do you have self-portraits we should take a look at?

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