“Photographs of the year” photographs mainline emotion, documenting the most awful, dramatic events of the year. Sorting these examples of human conflict and suffering into a list with a SEO’d headline (“top” “best” “most”) doesn’t add any context or understanding. I’m going to take the opposite approach: start with the most insignificant photograph as “photograph of the year” and see where the tush takes us.
Scarlett Johansson, self-portrait
I haven’t seen the self-portrait by Scarlett Johansson on anyone’s list, even this viral photos list from Time. It was one of the most-seen photographs.
In 2011 a nude self-portrait of a celebrity is not new or newsworthy, but the self-portrait is still relatively new. Before 100 years ago, you either had to
be an experienced photographer, painter or draughtsperson to create
one. Then the Kodak Brownie allowed everyone to make one.
Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931
It’s easy to dismiss Johansson’s self-portrait as silly, but it’s actually a sophisticated composition. One of the great self-portraits of the 1930s was Ilse Bing’s. Like Johansson, she’s using the mirror to show
two sides of herself. The unique aspect of Bing’s self-portrait at the time was to cover half her face with the Leica. Both women use the camera as an object that breaks the illusion and complicates it. This comes from painting, when artists painted themselves at the easel painting the self-portrait.
One indication of the quality of Scarlett Johansson’s photograph is the plethora of
parodies that followed it. One of the internet memes of 2011, her photograph gave people the
license to be silly, sexy, moody, pose their dogs, be clever. There are
Wall-e, President Obama, Ernie or Bert, Lego versions of the photo. One of the best is comedian Rob Delaney’s self-portrait at the doctor’s office.
Bing was featuring the camera to create a self-portrait of a professional photographer; in 2011 the camera indicates
nothing about the subject. Self Pop-Tart replaces the ubiquitous, meaningless mobile phone with a Pop-Tart. In the words of the man behind it, the Pop-Tart acts as a “pompousness eradicator.” Self Pop-Tart is classic internet cold fusion: transforming any mundane photo into a funny, often endearing moment.
Vivian Maier, ca. 1950s-1960s
Vivian Maier’s Pop-Tart was a Rolleiflex. 2011 saw mainstream excitement about Vivian Maier’s photography - and publication of her first book(s).
Maier’s negatives were discovered in a storage locker auction after her death, ready to be thrown out; Scarlett Johansson’s photo was only
published because a dreadful man hacked into her mobile account. Vivian Maier was the least famous person in the world, the self-portrait was the only way to document her own existence; nobody else was going to do it for her.
I don’t think Maier’s excellent work on the street would be taken as seriously without the self-portraits; getting a glimpse into this woman’s very private private life is big part of the story. But perhaps the opposite is true: if her work
was mostly the self-portraits, what would we think of her? Would so many aficionados of street photography praise her work?
Francesca Woodman, Rome, ca. 1977
Francesca Woodman’s short life produced a body of work that is largely made up of self-portraits. The first large retrospective is currently at the SFMOMA and the book published with it will be the go-to document of her work for some time.
Woodman created carefully composed scenes, using the patina of old rooms with longer exposures to transform herself into an apparition. With moving gestures, she built coded forms, sculpture. Most of her work is set indoors and she rarely breaks the illusion with her Pop-Tart (a Yashicamat TLR). As with the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, many male viewers are left confused by, or dismissive of her art. Of course this doesn’t matter - Woodman’s interior world will continue to influence younger artists.
The opposite of a Woodman self-portrait is Albert Watson’s 2006 portrait of Steve Jobs, with its surgical gaze and final-chord-of-Sgt.-Pepper intensity.
This is easily one of the “photographs of the year,” and of course it’s not a self-portrait. But I’d call it a quasi-self-portrait.
The photo is everywhere, but I’ve rarely seen Albert Watson credited. Jobs famously picked Walter Isaacson to
write the biography, gave him free reign, but then designed/approved the cover. The version found on Watson’s own website is much darker than the version used on the book cover (more on the shoot here). Jobs shared the
sentiment of Andy Warhol that you can definitely judge a book by its cover and selected Watson’s photograph to stare out from bookshop shelves after his death.
The other significant self-portraits of 2011 are by men: the politicians.
It’s useful to compare the Scarlett Johansson self-portrait to the work of the handful of male politicians who became famous photographers in 2011. The politicians committed no crime or actual infidelity, but the photographs became advertisements for bad decisions that
will never expire.
Putting them next to each other, the nude actress versus a collection of spray-tanned lizards: whom would you choose to make decisions on matters of security, education
and the economy?
In 2012 we should demand that the presidential candidates take self-portraits of themselves.
These self-portraits don’t need to be as silly as the parodic activities they already engage in (pretending to enjoy a local diner’s food, thumbs-upping, wearing camo for fake hunting, “debates”). The self-portrait might actually reveal something typical media coverage doesn’t. Don’t we deserve this extra piece of evidence before one of them is given the codes to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal?