A Collaborative Self Portrait
Initially it was John Coplans’ fragmented body/self portraits that influenced my ideas. He confirms, by its conspicuous absence, that the face has been the traditional attribute associated with identity. By denying the face as a personal marker, Coplans returns the body to its formal, specific and intimate character. My result was that of an unintended performance, which, when considering the images, appeared contrived. I was the mask in my own search of self. I eliminated self-portraiture and photographed my mother to find the self by way of collaboration.
Returning home and photographing family, as can be seen in Larry Sultan’s Photographs from Home, opens a set of relations that are intimate and question the position of observer/observed within a classed, gendered and ethnic framework. Every gesture with the camera is also autobiographical in nature. I used my mother as the nominal subject and a site onto which I could project/protect myself as an examination of identity. To attempt to know oneself was to explore the projections I placed on the other. These identifications and projections were contingent on one another and as Abigail Solomon Godeau writes, are “inextricably joined to the investigation of both.” I found I could occupy multiple subject positions beyond the status of photographer; I could be myself and the other.
Trauma is unavoidable in the process of individuation, as Hal Foster discusses in The Return of The Real, traumatic realism and the construction of the gaze are central issues in photography. Within an inflated and partially fabricated reality, my mother navigated physical pain, as I was tethered to emotional grief. Her condition mirrored mine as trauma’s echo. Her accident produced in us a fatalistic mind-set. Every element of the wound, her medication and its symptoms, were over-dramatized, addictive and a reminder to me of my inevitable death; a memento mori. I was attracted to her condition because this impairment brought to mind the dynamic of our past relationship. This memory was evoked even though our roles as mother/child were reversed. The theatrical décor mimicked our exchange. The ornately upholstered interiors merged with the inflammation of her compromised health. But if trauma was my window to the real, and a result of projected exaggerations, was my “real” a delusion?
Just as Barthes suggests that the subject departs the unmoving object, my attraction faded as my mother healed. Playing less of a role within A Collaborative Self Portrait and becoming more of an observer of a reclaimed life, I wondered if this critical distance could achieve a greater sense of self. Demonstrative in its apt critique of a vacuous and narcissistic world, Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism and photographers exploring hyperrealism provided further context for the work. I returned the focus to her as [m]other. She was another woman and hard-wired into her mind was a constructed self, repressing the other, painting a mask. These set boundaries produced a script, an Original Fiction (Spinoza). I examined the possibility of a perpetual mask. Typically, on the surface, the mask plays a role related to vanity, but operates beyond this within narcissism and fear as can be seen in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. No longer in collaboration, but in silent battle, we were nevertheless involved in another form of exchange.
The inevitable question of posing involves the discussion of authentic experience. I researched photographer, Gillian Laub’s maneuvers through the idea of the pose within her family work; using snapshots as blue prints to re-pose an un-posed scene. My images are posed and many are manipulated to feign reality. Revealing this aspect acknowledges and questions its relationship to the position of the gaze as either direct, yielding a confirmed exchange, or averted. “I arrange myself, not my subject” (Diane Arbus), therefore the continuous pose/performance and awareness of the eye was a facet of my mother’s character I attempted to expose by imitating it in my own process. The exchange between her representation of herself and the way I chose to represent that picture offered to me suggests that perhaps “there is no real outside of representation or…no access to the real unmediated by representation.” (Godeau) From having established a point of view as doubled, to viewing the one as other, I was in dialogue with the uncanny. This recalled the work of Sarah Jones, whose subjects, set amidst interiors of “home” and experiencing similar encounters with the “unheimlich”, endure feelings of estrangement from the “heim” (Freud’s The Uncanny). I came to know my mother in a different light. I realized The Truth of [her] Masks (Oscar Wilde) as they melted into her face. Reflecting back on my own performance, I wondered if in fact that had been the self I sought, looking right back at me in my initial photograph, the idea of which also recalls both Gillian Wearing’s Album and Georges Franju’s film, Eyes Without a Face.
The conflation of the nature of the medium with the position of the author informs the project in both parts and concludes that in fact it is a “portrait” of neither of us but rather a picture of an exchange. Between photographer and subject exists a compromise of the intended and the uncontrollable, the chance. Though we would like to be, we are not always in charge of the script. It is my intentions that make any image my own and my mother’s impressions that make/show her, as transparently as her resurrected identity. The images, “like a death mask” (Susan Sontag), reveal no soul. They do not strip down to “the truth” conceivably because it is right there, on the surface. Maybe truth is difficult to find because we search for it. Perhaps it is not something that is hidden and needs to be found, but rather needs to be seen, recognized as such and exposed. So often the mask is discarded in a valiant attempt to “find the real you,” but, within this examination, I have realized that it is not about the surface of the photograph but about the surface of the subject. The surface is evidence of what is chosen, like the frame; it is where intention lives and where the truth lies.
Suzanne Marie Mejean