Some thoughts on photography
and the narcissistic impulse

by Lyle Rexer

Photographers are wary of photography, and with good reason. I take that famous self-portrait of Nan Goldin with a black eye as a metaphor for a truth that all photographers know but only rarely turn upon themselves: The image hits back. Taking a picture is not an act of theft, but a kind of aggression. So photographers, rather than putting themselves directly in front of their own lens, feel a need to deflect their image, or refract it, turning what might be a rather straightforward examination of their appearance or an exercise in narcissism into an act of evasion, a Borgesian game of ontological hide-and-seek: I’m here but not here. Sometimes all we’ll see is their shadow or a faint reflection in a darkened window. If they show themselves clearly, it is often as a visage in the mirror.

Of course, photographers do take pictures of themselves directly. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe or Chuck Close, not to mention Goldin. Most people want attention, as Diane Arbus noted, and a photograph is “a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.” It invites theatricality and indulges narcissism, and photographers are not immune to the temptations they routinely offer others. Examples range from the disappointed Hippolyte Bayard’s playacting of a drowned man—Bayard felt cheated out of the credit for photography’s invention—to the Countess de Castiglione’s staged self-dramatizations. She made hundreds of them, including some that showed the ravages of time on her own bloated body.

But the mirrored self-portrait is a distinct genre because it epitomizes photography’s spectral nature. A painting contains a physical trace of the artist, but the photograph does not. In the taking of most photographs, the photographer is but an operator, an extension of the machine, unable to insert into the descriptive space of the image any trace of his or her selfhood, imagination, or spirit. (The photographer is nothing but an all-seeing, transparent eye.) No wonder transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called the nineteenth century the advent of an ocular age. Baudelaire thought that the photograph’s separation of matter and spirit was an unmitigated disaster that spelled the end of aesthetics and art; he sensed in photography a negation of his own triumphant subjectivity.

As if to confirm the photographer’s ghostly status, the history of photography is full of self-portraits in reflecting surfaces. In an image from 1851, Gustave Le Gray pictured himself as a passing shadow in a mirror whose ornateness seems to mock the insubstantiality of photography. Somewhat later, the great Persian photographer Antoin Sevruguin created a hall-of-mirrors portrait of himself at work during a Tehran photo session. Robert A. Sobieszek featured such images in his 1994 exhibition “The Camera i”: Ilse Bing doubly imaged, the pregnant Diane Arbus, André Kertész in the corner of one of his distortion photos, Dieter Appelt, partly obliterated in a breath-fogged mirror. For photographers, who are always looking at something else, the mirror provides the only way of picturing yourself with your tools.

Self-reflection in photography isn’t limited to self-portraiture, with or without mirrors. It pervades scientific and documentary photography as well. Whenever the camera ventures out into the sunlight, the shadows or reflections of photographers (and their tripods) appear like thumbprints on their images. Over the years, they have marked the plates of cartographers, travel photographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, and even impressionist painters. We can see the shadow of Monet’s bowler hat in his photo of the water lily pond at Giverny, a reminder that it’s not God or a machine making the image, but a person, a consciousness. This has its negative side, too. The shadow or reflection is a stamp of possession. We see it in a spectacular image by Harlan Smith, taken on an expedition for the American Museum of Natural History at the turn of the last century. It is an extreme close-up of a Northwest Coast Indian man, and in the pupil of his eye we see the photographer reflected. The image is a succinct metaphor for photography’s role in imperialism.

Today, the Internet is loaded with self-reflective images. Typing “self-portrait” into the search engine on www.flickr.com produces more than 350,000 results. Most of the ones with mirrors strike me as psychological statements, laying bare the photographer’s own ambivalence regarding the possibilities of self-representation. Or they are examples of a kind of coy distancing, a refusal of availability. In examples where equipment is prominent, the image reinforces either a sense of professional competence or an association with hobby. Their titles emphasize the prevalence of the trope not just in professional photography, but in photography at large: Ubiquitous Mirror Self Portrait and Obligatory Self Portrait in Mirror Holding Camera. One image from the Internet shows a photographer taking a picture of himself in a mirrored bathroom and clearly enjoying the game as the mirror reflects his momentary self-capture to infinity. He calls it Mirror Cliché.

And all those photographers who have participated in the romantic desire for supreme subjectivity? The mirrored portrait is pathos and game, a (reflected) candle to light up the heart of darkness and banish photographers’ own inevitable sense of irrelevance. There is, for all the humor, something incredibly claustrophobic about these images in which the photographers look like trapped creatures emerging momentarily from a cave. One of Kafka’s parables goes: “A cage went seeking a bird.” Is this not a metaphor for photography to replace the mirrors and windows?


Tania Leuschner, Cologne, Germany © Tania Leuschner

Matt Riggott, Empire State Building, 2005

Melissa Sunflower Trad, Sydney, Australia, 2006

Eva Paulhus with "Peepers," Gardiner, Maine, 2006

Judy Baxter, Hahira, Georgia, 2007

Morten Hemmingsen, Højby, Denmark, 2006

Rex Bennett, Grand Hyatt Seattle, 2006

Zen Sutherland, location unknown, 2005

Andy Walker, Bristol, United Kingdom, 2007

Coralie Amato, Jimboomba, Queensland, Australia, 2003

Shawn Lea, Ross Bridge Resort, Birmingham, Alabama, 2006

Lisa Bliss Chin, Briarwood, New York, 2007

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