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Solipsism: The theory that the self is the only thing really existent. From the Latin solus, alone + ipse, self.
--Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary, 1980

Lee Friedlander,
"Washington D.C.,"
print, 11 x 14", 1962.
The Social Scene exhibition of “new documentary” photography at the Museum of Contemporary Art raises several important issues. The most obvious is the impossibility of a truly “objective” photographer. This issue is addressed numerous times in the catalogue essays, particularly in Max Kozloff’s excellent contribution. As Kozloff attests, “[P]hotographs do not record programs; they describe material conditions from the viewpoint of an imperfect witness.”

The “imperfection” or subjectivity of the photographer is further discussed by A.D. Coleman, who writes that “new documentary” photographers such as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand “. . .make their own presence at the scene manifest in the photographic work and/or its accompanying text, both as an autobiographical element and as an acknowledgement of their inevitable ‘perturbation’ of the situations they seek to describe.” Friedlander’s work is particularly notable in this regard: His photographs often include direct or implied self-portraits, such as his legs showing below the poster glued to a shop window, his face reflected in the side mirror of his car, or the shadow of his head and shoulders darkening the fur coat of a wealthy woman on the streets of New York City. In the text of his 1970 book Self Portrait, Friedlander writes, “I suspect that it is for one’s self-interest that one looks at one’s surroundings and one’s self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for taking photographs. . .” Which brings up the issue of photography and solipsism.

From its inception, one of photography’s primary functions has been to allow photographers to construct images of their various selves. As early as 1840, Frenchman Hipployte Bayard composed a series of self-portraits with accompanying text designed to protest the fact that his independent invention of photography was not acknowledged like that of his celebrated contemporary Louis Daguerre. Bayard’s fabricated death images were paired with comments like, “The government, which has supported M. Daguerre more than is necessary, declared it could do nothing for M. Bayard, and the unhappy man drowned himself. . .he has been at the morgue for several days, and no one has recognized or claimed him. . .”

The photographic construction of alternative selves continued throughout the 19th-century. In 1898, American Fred Holland Day grew his hair to his shoulders and virtually starved himself in order to pose for self-portraits as an emaciated Christ.

Photographic self-portraits exploring various constructed identities flourished throughout the twentieth century as well. American Surrealist photographer Man Ray often posed for his camera wearing female attire, as did his Dada cohort Marcel Duchamp (as Rrose Selavy). Ray also created images of himself in a French beret, Indian turban, priest’s robe, and with half of his scruffy beard completely shaved to produce a Jeckell-Hyde visage.

More recently, Robert Mapplethorpe used photography to re-invent himself as a glamorous vamp, a leather-bound masochist, and, towards the end of his short life, as a ghostly presence hovering over a skull-headed cane. Similarly asserting that the modern self is open to constant reinvention, Lucas Samaras manipulated Polaroids to create hallucinogenic nightmares of multiple psychedelic selves. Countering that the self is a patchwork of media portrayals, Judith Golden inserted her face into remakes of magazine covers. Joel Peter Witkin’s self-portait in a mask adorned with a plastic crucified Jesus is a distressing echo of Day’s Christic portrayals.

French Surrealist Claude Cahun’s constructed selves range from a bejeweled, turbanned psychic Madame to a discarded doll, folded into a linen closet; from flirtatious Rococo wench to mediatating Zen priest; from young boy contemplating himself in a mirror to athletic beach babe swinging on a cafe sign. Cahun’s work is often cited as canny precedent for Cindy Sherman’s, although Sherman’s imagery--at least the well known early faux film stills--deals more with dominant cultural tropes than with photographic scrutiny of individual identity/identities. Her recent and disturbing arrangements of prostheses into disjointed but ever sexualized relicants recalls Hans Bellmer’s Poupee series. The over-the-hill grandes dames she portrayed in her recent Gagosian Gallery show, however, poignantly swing towards identity issues.

Another contemporary artist who deals with the cultural tropes of gender identity is Chicago photographer Tony Tasset. In a recent review of Tasset’s work, Kathryn Hixson writes, “Like a lot of good art, Tony Tasset’s is about the self. . .But this self, the Tasset-self, is always presented as created by context, by the pantheon of symbols and icons existing in the cultural milieu, and by the complex set of existing systems that form, deform, and inform any personal experience. Whether it be art-historical precedent, hard-core rock and roll, or his backyard garden, the context is the core of Tassets investigation.” (New Art Examiner, May, 2000, pp. 34-35).

Reading the above recalls Terence Hawkes’ view of 18th-century Italian Giambattista Vico as the gray eminence of Structuralism. According to Hawkes, Vico argued that “primitive” man has “an inherent ‘poetic wisdom’ which informs his responses to his environment and casts them in the form of a ‘metaphysics’ of metaphor, symbol and myth. . .man constructs the myths, the social institutions, virtually the whole world as he perceives it, and in so doing he constructs himself. . .” If we understand that Vico used the word ‘poet’ as the Greeks did--to signify ‘maker’ or ‘creator’--it becomes clear that he was asserting that all identity is constructed.

Those photographers who portray the component facets of identity can be seen to be analyzing the validity of Vico’s contention that humans have “created themselves.” Such work requires particular insight because, according to Vico, the world “as ‘structured’ by man. . .proves itself to be a potent agency for continuous restructuring: its customs and rites act as a forceful brainwashing mechanism whereby human beings are habituated to and made to acquiesce in a man-made world which they nevertheless perceive as artless and ‘natural.” (Hawkes’ Structuralism and Semiotics, pp. 11-15). Photographers who investigate the self, therefore, look past the ‘natural’ identity given by culture and address its constructed nature.

Eileen Cowin, “Family Docudrama
(Dance)," digital chromogenic
print, 20 x 24", 1980.
Eileen Cowin is a local artist who has created photographic narratives that address the constructed nature of identity. Her Family Docudramas (1980-82), for example, is a series of images of the artist--who is sometimes “doubled” in compositions that also include her twin sister--and other members of her family in disconcerting tableaux. A casual viewer might rush past Cowin’s initially familiar scenes, but a more attentive viewer will be arrested by the subtle incongruities in the photographic staging. As Sue Spaid, curator of the recent Cowin retrospective at the Armory Center for the Arts writes, “Cowin collapses the oppositions between notions of truth and fiction in photography. . .these are disaffected period pieces, performances in which a certain American family is trapped in a farce of manners, caught in a web of social construction.” Spaid concludes that Family Docudramas suggests that “we have become pathologically self-conscious to the extent that even in our most private moments we are aware of ourselves as images and as performers.” Are we indeed aware of ourselves--of our identities--to the point that we are constantly performing before the actual or implied camera? Are we aware that we are constantly constructing ourselves? Does photography heighten this awareness?

Almost five hundred years ago French philosopher Rene Descartes famously asserted, “I think therefore I am.” Today, Post Structuralists suggest that our very thoughts have been shaped by the media. Certainly, the practice of language has been converted into media spectacle with talk shows dominating both television and radio broadcasts. But thoughts and language seem subservient to the flood of media images that dominate our awareness. Perhaps it is impossible to redirect the flood with words. Perhaps only new images are capable of constructing new ‘realities.’ Perhaps one 21st-century Cartesian assertion might be “I photograph therefore I am.”

“Its hard to tell where you leave off and the camera begins. A Minota 35mm LSR makes it almost effortless to capture the world around you. Or express the world within you. . .Everything works so smoothly that the camera becomes part of you. . .MINOLTA, when you are the camera and the camera is you.”
--1976 advertisement quoted in Susan Sontag’s On Photography.