Reading: Auto Focus; The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright

I decided to buy Auto Focus; The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright after reading a substantial part of it in the library at Arts University Bournemouth. I’m thinking, rather nervously, of taking some self portraits although whether this will be for EYV or is a longer term idea I’m not sure. There is an idea developing – it’s just around the edges of my mind at the moment. I wanted to look at the work of other photographers to see how they have approached self portraits.

When I think about self portraits, the word that comes to mind is ‘selfie’. That has all sorts of negative connotations, but again I find myself with the question I have asked myself over and over again in this course; what is the difference between a ‘selfie’ on Instagram (which has meaning to many people and is often declaring a message) and a self portrait that has some message, artistic value and meaning? Why is one declared vanity and the other art?

A main part of my reasoning for self portraits is that I don’t have anyone to model for me, but there’s also the idea of being at a point where I feel I can open up to the world a bit more, reveal a bit more of myself and who I am. When I started EYV that was the part that scared me; I knew I would have to show my photos to other people and that in doing so I would be revealing parts of myself that I usually keep hidden, expressing ideas perhaps that I usually keep to myself. So I suppose I have hidden in my house for 25 years now and maybe doing this course has made me reflect on who I am and what meaning there is in the things that I see, do and care about.

I have a photograph album full of photos of my mum that were taken by my dad. It means a lot to me to have those images of her. I look at them frequently and I sometimes pick one to scan and play around with. However, I realise that until a year or so ago when I finally pointed a camera at myself, there are hardly any photographs of me. So unless I do it now my children won’t have that kind of photographic record that means so much to me. So my thoughts are for me: for my learning, for self-expression and communication, because there are ideas running in and through me that need to come out, but my ideas are also for them – for my children.

I feel very self-concoious about being in front of a camera. I don’t think I am photogenic at all, and somehow I cannot fill the space or project myself into the frame that I feel opening up around me whenever a camera is pointed at me. Internally I hide and feel ashamed of the way I look; somehow that is the thing that projects externally, the thing that the camera picks up. I wonder if masquerade is a way for me to go. It’s certainly something that appeals to me in some way and many of the books I’ve been looking at lately have referred to it.

Anyway, to the book.

There are five chapters: Autobiography; Body; Masquerade; Studio and Album; Performance. Each chapter covers several artists with double page spreads – sometimes more – looking at their work and process. The chapters begin with an exploration of the ideas, of historical and contemporary work, and I suppose something of the psychology behind the artists, especially of those that are particularly well known. These preliminary discussions are really very insightful and have helped me enormously, taking my personal ideas in totally different directions to those I had originally envisioned. I think there’s a real range of work here that is varied and exciting. I suspect I will find myself referring to this book frequently. The size of it is great too as it’s large enough for images printed on a full page to have some real impact that I find is missing in some photography books.



April (2 of 2)
Ideas influenced by Andy Warhol
April (1 of 2)
I was starting to play with the idea of a self referencing image that’s not a self referencing image.


Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


2 thoughts on “Reading: Auto Focus; The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright

  1. I really have to get up from the laptop and do the laundry… however you might find these interesting. Forgive the format – cut and pasted from my EYV blog.

    Anne Burns The Carceral Net blog – selfie hating memes. I keep getting lost in this blog and forgetting to write about it. It’s a fascinating view on selfies and how they are viewed that keeps making me think. Anne Burns also has a thesis online
    Online Discussion of Women’s Photographic Practices as
    a Gendered Form of Social Discipline”. Her writing has really made me reconsider selfies, especially as I read further into Angela McRobbie. It’s interesting that self-portraits as a genre seem to be more widely respected than self-portraits that are #tagged #selfie

    In summary – so many of us look at selfies in the same disparaging/self-deprecating way, I know I did. Anne looks at selfies a different way and I think she makes a good point. I view them differently now. So much anti-selfie culture disparages and discourages women and girls taking selfies, and clearly there are issues with representation and “perfection”, self-confidence. Selfies do though give women and girls (and everyone) to control how they present themselves to the world, to take ownership of their image. If that results in a few men complaining that the duckface pout isn’t “pretty” then who the f* cares?

    Also, Holly Woodward lent me this book which I ended up buying (it’s less than a tenner on second-hand sites). Masquerade Women’s Contemporary Portrait Photography ed by Kate Newton & Christine Rolph. I read it immediately after Auto Focus and they work well together.

    I’m on the self portrait section of C&N at the moment and getting so much from it. All the best, Kate

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thanks so much for this Kate. I will definitely follow this up. I’m getting myself into a quagmire; totally stuck with what I’m actually trying to communicate, and am left with questions I cannot really answer. The work by Anne Burns looks like it could be really relevant.


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