5 Photographers Who Defined the Self-portrait

Discover painting’s influence on the photographic self-portrait and how it can build a visual narrative

Across all artistic disciplines, self-reflection can be expressed in different ways. The creator inevitably leaves a piece of himself in each of their creations. Since the days of Ancient Greece, it has been believed that creativity goes hand in hand with self-exploration.

When it comes to the self-portrait, there is a whole other level of communication between the artist and spectator. The artist shows themselves exactly as they are, or, how they want others to perceive them.

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'Las Meninas', by Diego Velázquez (1657)

In Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the painter appears in front of the spectator as if we are the subject that he is painting. This is an incredibly innovative way of creating an interaction between the creator and the person viewing their work.

A visual heritage

The classical painters often painted themselves and, with the emergence of photography, this trend continued. For painters and illustrators, looking at themselves in the mirror was a perfect way to practice expressions, proportions, and postures.

As painting as a discipline evolved, self-portraits became more complex–loaded with intricate meaning. In the two self-portraits below, we can observe an evident change in the way the authors present themselves, and the sensations or the state of mind that each one transmits.

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‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat', by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (c. 1782)
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‘The Desperate Man’, self-portrait by Gustave Courbet (c. 1843)

The self-portrait in photography

Photographers who began using themselves as models discovered the same thing that painters had before them. No longer were there any restrictions on poses, makeup, materials, and other elements that shape the final image.

Some photographers used the self-portrait to reflect on and criticize social and cultural norms, such as commenting on gender roles by portraying themselves as a sex different from their own.

Learn more about some of the images from the history of photography that defined the self-portrait:

Hippolyte Bayard

Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840)

This image was completely ahead of its time. It is considered the first-ever staged photograph, meaning the set and other elements of the image were prepared in advance and the scene is not real. This image is an act of protest. Hippolyte Bayard pretends to have committed suicide in response to the lack of recognition he received for his contributions to the invention of the medium of photography.

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Digital Library Federation Academic Image Cooperative

Ilse Bing

Self-Portrait in Mirrors (1931)

This avant-garde German photographer’s conceptual work was way ahead of its time. "I feel that the camera is an extension of my eyes and that it moves with me," she said. While today this type of selfie is all over Instagram, Bing’s Self-Portrait in Mirrors was revolutionary. In it, her Leica camera becomes the protagonist.

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© MoMA

Diane Arbus

Double self-portrait with daughter Doon (1945)

Diane Arbus went about capturing those who lived on the outskirts of society, those who were marginalized, rejected. Her images make the viewer uncomfortable, and push them to reflect on the prejudices they harbor towards those who look different. It is rumored that this image inspired Stanley Kubrick's iconic twins in The Shining. Do you see the resemblance?

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© Diane Arbus

Cindy Sherman

Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

Almost the entire oeuvre of this photographer is made up of self-portraits. Her technique consists in exploring diverse themes in which she appears as characters from imaginary worlds. In addition to being both photographer and model, she took charge of the creative direction, makeup, wardrobe, and hairstyling for her shoots. She is often considered to have had the greatest influence on modern portraiture, not only in photography but also across other disciplines, such as painting and performance.

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© Cindy Sherman

Andy Warhol

Self-portrait in drag (1981-1982)

Andy Warhol's passion for photography is perhaps lesser known than his paintings; however, his paintings were actually based on photographic studies. Hundreds of his Polaroids have been conserved. In this self-portrait, which forms part of a series of self-portraits of Andy doing drag, Warhol exaggerates his expression and creates a dramatic look using makeup and a wig. The way he plays with identity had and continues to have a big impact on photographers.

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© Christie’s

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