Mirror, Mirror on the wall

On Autoportrait in times of digital photography

„Mirror, Mirror on the wall,\ who is the fairest of them all?“ – this little saying from the fairytale „Snow White“, originally edited by the famous brothers Grimm, has some of the ambiguities of the relation between self and its picture seen in a mirror (or a Photo), already in it, although it is quite an exaggaration. It is a rather sad, one could even say: devastating attempt of reassurance to speak to a mirror like that. In some ways, and I will point out why, we all are trapped in that strange relation of reassurance when it comes to looking into a mirror.

Physically the mirror reflects light and through the reflection from our body, skin and clothes an image is created in our eyes, or our mind rather. Psychological we do not see us as we „really“ look, but rather in a mildly idealized form of appearance, that tries to match the image of self, as everybody has it from him- or herself (even though it is continually changing in the one or other direction, depending on the state of emotions one is in and so on) and the „true“ reflection in the mirror. Brutally one could say: we see ourselfs as the ideal we have of ourselfs. Naturally there are disorders, especially concerning rather psychological illnesses like Anorexia, where the image of the self is continually seen in a sometimes very heavily deformed way. Nonetheless the gaze into the mirror is one of the central aspects of reassurrance that one is oneself – imagine the horror of looking into one and seeing someone else, a popular motive in literature and fiction in general.

The „autoportrait“ provided by the mirror can differ much from the portrait you take with a camera. The light is captured in a comparable way but the image resulting is not interferred with by the image of self, that is existing in everybody. That is why one might sometimes wonder – is that me? – looking at a photograph taken of oneself shot by either oneself or somebody else (surely you recognize yourself being that person on the photo, but at the same time there is a gap, a hiatus between the photo and the image of self you have from yourself, that makes you feel uncomfortable).

This is me for instance, some years ago on vacation in Breslau (or Wroclaw):


Truly I am quite definitely not the fairest in all the land (and do not see myself as being that), but the photo does attempt to capture something more than my physical appearance (although it is not a very good photo). What one sees besides of the flash in the mirror and the rather eccentric, pink plastic frame of the mirror (which actually motivated me to take a „mirror-shot“), is a bearded guy with a hat, photographing himself into the mirror. One might also be thinking that this is in a rather cheap hotelroom or something of that sort – the mirror does not fit the image of the person, it is not likely to be his. One might also notice the rather „analog“ attempt of taking a self-shot. Thus this person does not posses a digital camera or something like that or he is not used to its use or to taking photos from himself. The beard going with the hat one would interprete probably as being attributes to this person, seeing himself possibly as a musician or artist of some sort, at least in his manner of presenting himself as is, even if he does something else completely.

The picture of me, this „bad photo“ is one of the many self- or mirror shots we face today. The massive inflation of autoportraits became possible through the device of digital photography. Usually most of those are mirror shots – a gamble with the reflection of oneself in the mirror, reflected into the lens of a camera (or an iphone).  Not only popular with teenage girls, these „mirror shots“ tend to not show one as oneself as brutal as possible, but rather to capture the image of self produced by the mind in just that moment for the purpose of sharing it in the form of „I am the moment“ in social networks or to reassure to oneself and the world in a long-lasting medium the individuality of oneself in a defined moment in time, which can be regarded as one of the keys to post-modernist self constructrion.

Usually all „mirror-shot“ autoportraits have an artistic angle to them and thus link back to the origin of „selfportrait“ as an artistic genre in painting in the renaissance. Dürers famous selfportraits for instance show the artist over time not only in the state of the art fashion of the late 15th century, but also in an at the first glance naturalistic approach that is, one the second glance, most likely idealized at least in some ways – they show the image of Dürer as he saw himself more than the actual, neutral appearnce of Dürer probably looked like. In the earliest self portrait that has made it through the times this is a little less the case. Dürer draws himself as a boy and writes:

„Dz hab Ich aus eim spigell nach mir selbs kunterfet im 1484 Jor, do ich noch ein Kint was“

(this i have made after myself out of a mirror in 1484, when i was still a child)

Later autoportraits by artists, especially from expressionalism onwards, the autoportrait provided in painting (rather than in photography, where autoportraits are naturally – the mirror thing again – one of the oldest sujets one can find) changes from the reproduction of an image in a mirror to the reproduction (or possibly even rather „production“) of the „felt“ image, the broken image of ones individuality as well as the image of ones struggling and emotion for instance through the use of colour (van Gogh), „simplified“ outlines (Modersohn-Becker) or décor and fashion (Frida Kahlo). Also popular is the self-description as an artist in self portraits over the times, beginning in the renaissance. Usually this is accomplished by showing the artists studio, a (oftenly nude) model or  by attributing the most cliché objects to the self portrait, such as a colour palette. Most of these selfportraits do also play with the sensation of peeping through a hole in the wall into a space secluded from the „normal“ bourgeoise setting.

Intrestingly the post-modern, digital autoportraits that usually are not ment to be art (in their first meaning at last, some of them might be) take the history of self-portraits very much into consideration. Not only do they tend to show oneself idealized (in the way one sees itself), but are also oftenly attached with attributes (fashion, décor, both today as personal as the attributed colour palette for a painter in the 19th century), and the attempt of being „true“, as to show emotions and thus the whole individual, not only its physical appearance in a defined moment in time.

The imminent difference between selfportraits by artists, especially contemporary of course (and there are interesting projects\concepts playing with mirror-shots, masquerade, self and image and so on, for instance the series „The big Masquerade“ by german artist Boris Duhm), and the ususal mirror shots flooding facebook, flickr, blogs like this, you name it, is the lack of concept or (at least) critical thinking behind them (the employment of concepts in art.history is either unconscious or a rather strange incident). There is no irony, neither „self-reflection“ on the own personality in most of them, they are – sadly – a mere reassurance of ones self and ones self proclaimed individuality taken out of the mirror (where one found it originally) and presented to the world. Very much like the evil queen in Snow White these pictures are questions proposed to a mirror out of a certain insecurity with the self, that is dealt with in a nearly proto-magical process: by taking the picture of oneself and presenting it to the world, the self is once again defined and secluded from insecurity, the others, the world, everything. So the question goes:

Mirror, mirror on the wall – who am i and what is me?


Über philippkoch

author and curator, specializing in literature and writing on visual arts
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