Friday, January 1, 2010

Mirror Shots

Mirror shots are a popular motif in photography, usually used to make self-portraits, or to draw attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, in which case the mirror stands for the image-making capacity of the camera.

Mirrors – and more generally, reflections  – also allow the photographer to laminate or superimpose different kinds of representation. Often the implicit message is that all of these representations have equal epistemic or evidential value: that a reflection – or indeed a photograph itself – is no more or less real than anything else in the world. [1] The acknowledged master of this kind of photograph is Lee Friedlander, whose book of ‘self-portraits’ showing only his shadow or reflection, far from being an exercise in egoism, is actually about the dissolution of self, its splintering and refraction. 

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, USA, 1983.
Above: Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983.

This famous image by Nan Goldin (a cropped version appears on the cover of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) is part of the same genre (even though no mirror was involved in its creation), but it has a rather different subtext. It is a self-portrait taken with a cable release, but it is also a portrait of a relationship. Behind Nan on the wall is another photograph of Brian, which shows him in a similar pose to the one he adopts here. It was probably taken on the same bed. The version of Brian who looks out from the print is the only figure who appears to meet the camera's gaze, which has here been separated from the gaze of its operator, just as Brian's gaze has been separated from that of his image within the scene. The ‘real’ Brian stares off to one side, also failing to meet Nan’s gaze.

Here, then, the different layers of representation clearly play off each other, but all affirm the coherence of an identity or persona, which is made up precisely of the play between these various layers, and realised in the context of the relationship with another, even if that relationship seems to be defined by a series of unanswered questions: that is, of unreturned gazes (even the image of Brian on the wall only appears to be looking at us).

In this photograph, there is no mirror to represent the image-making capacity of the camera. Instead, the terms of the substitution are reversed, and the camera performs the function of a mirror. [2]

[1] Quotation from Kazuo Nishii, Daido Moriyama, 2001, p. 8.
[2] I'll Be Your Mirror (from a song by The Velvet Underground) is the name of one of the chapters in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and also the title of a recent retrospective of Goldin's work.

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