Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Every time I take a picture of myself, I have a mental list of features I’m trying to hide: A mole on the right side of my cheek. A smile that shows more gum than teeth. The exact nature of my thighs. So many of us judge photos on their ability to erase these inconvenient truths of the body, but even more profound is using the camera to analyze them.
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In Autobiographical Stories (The Plastic Surgery), one of more than 100 portraits in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit Selves and Others, French artist Sophie Calle gives us a silhouette of her nose, the one her grandparents urged her to get fixed. The accompanying text explains why the procedure never happened: The surgeon committed suicide. Now the “problem” Calle’s grandparents hoped would disappear has become the very focus of her art, a stunning example of how the flaws we rush to airbrush and chisel away are often the features that make us unique.
In an age of selfie overload and flattering filters, Selves and Others is an invitation to think more deeply about how we capture ourselves and the world around us. Curator Erin O’Toole describes the idea behind the collection as “psychological portraiture”—images that prompt us to look closer, as opposed to passively distracting. More than half the work comes from female artists, a high number in the still male-dominated art world. Whether we are looking at an artist’s self-portrait or a snapshot of a passing stranger, the exhibit illustrates how photographers have used the camera since its inception to both reveal and disguise, to play with traditional notions of beauty—and upend them.
I was surprised to learn from O’Toole that women were the original target demographic for photography. Back in the early twentieth century, Kodak marketed its new camera to female buyers. “The Kodak Girl” ads featured a sporty, independent-minded woman boasting the newest accordion lens. Photography wasn’t “art” then, so these little ladies were only having fun. Nobody was trying to shake up the world order.
But it was shaken nonetheless. Locked out of traditional art schools, women gravitated to the camera as a means of artistic expression. Photographers like Dora Maar, featured in the exhibit, became part of surrealist circles in the 1930s. Maar was a muse and mistress to Pablo Picasso, who told her to put down that camera and paint like him. Be a real artist. And yet the camera allowed Maar to roam free of his enormous shadow. Her eerie Double Portrait superimposes two images she’d done for a magazine assignment on springtime hats, and the result is a self divided—between Picasso’s needs and her own, perhaps, or between work and art. The main image is doll-like, resembling a cracked mask, as if to remind us that every woman has an outer self and one lurking underneath.
The firm grip women had on the emerging medium, however, began to slip by midcentury. Kodak ads from the 1950s and ’60s show a beauty-queen type in a swimsuit, posing her legs and arms at flattering angles; women were now the subject of the image and all too rarely its creator. In 1975, feminist critic Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “the male gaze” to critique how visual art and movies catered to men’s voyeurism, reducing women to objects of lust, characters instead of people.
Enter Cindy Sherman, one of the most important female photographers to emerge in the 1970s. Her Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980)—several of which are featured in the exhibit—push back against the notion of women as glamour queens and helpless victims. In the images, Sherman poses as characters shot freeze-frame-style from movies that never existed. Sherman has been hailed as the original queen of selfies, but this is a misnomer, since Sherman herself disappears. (Filmmaker John Waters once called her “a female female impersonator.”)
To be a woman is a performance, Sherman seems to be saying. Most of us learn this early on, and in fact, many of us take no small joy in seeing ourselves reflected back by the camera. But Selves and Others reminds us there is great power to be found behind the lens, wherever we choose to direct it.
This article originally appears in the April 2018 issue of ELLE.