scorecardresearch Skip to main content

When photographers photograph themselves

At the RISD Museum, ‘The Performative Self-Portrait’ puts the focus on the person behind the camera.

Jess T. Dugan, "Self-portrait (reaching)," from the series "Every Breath We Drew," 2020.Jess T. Dugan

PROVIDENCE — In a sense, the title of “The Performative Self-Portrait” is redundant. Any self-portrait, in any medium, is a performance. A self-portrait presents a certain aspect of the maker’s self and in emphasizing that aspect makes the image a version of performing.

“The Performative Self-Portrait” runs at the RISD Museum through Nov. 5.

The show’s curators, Conor Moynihan and Matthew Kluk, are well aware of this and have something more specific in mind with the title. Here performativeness is a stylization of presentation, often for larger ends (ideological, thematic, even art historical). A fair number of the 50 or so images qualify as transgressive — those faces are in your face — kicking performativeness into overdrive.


The earliest self-portrait, from 1930, is a photomontage collaboration between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. The most recent are a pair of Jess T. Dugan self-portraits from 2020 and 2021. The lion’s share come from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and this century.

Hanging above the Cahun/Moore is a Cindy Sherman self-portrait from 1975 done in homage to Cahun. The image is doubly notable, Sherman having long ago forged a vital and influential career based on highly performative self-portraiture — “disguised” might be as accurate as “performative” — and this one is from the very beginning of that career. It’s one of a set of seeds that led to a grove of wildly differentiated trees.

It’s in the nature of self-portraits to be direct, identity being placed front and center. Several examples here are nicely oblique. Photographs from Ray Metzker, Erik Gould, and Barbara Norfleet aren’t portraiture, per se. Instead, each includes the photographer’s shadow within a photograph about something else. Norfleet, who in addition to her own photography did so much as a curator to further the medium at Harvard in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, turned 97 in February. Long may she flourish.


Renée Stout, "Red Room at Five (E)," 1999.Erik Gould

The title color in Renée Stout’s “Red Room at Five” series so dominates the images that that’s what’s being portrayed. Red conveys the emotional temperature of the artist, a self-portrait more telling than any detail of physical appearance. Or for a different sort of obliqueness, there’s a Providence cityscape by Harry Callahan, with his easy-to-miss reflection visible in a display window in the background.

Another form of indirection is employing art history. John O’Reilly’s nude image seen from behind in a mirror shares “Large Studio 10-6-86″ with paintings by Velázquez and Picasso, as well as a wondrous assortment of sculptor’s forms, stuffed animals, and what would appear to be an oversized Oscar statuette. It’s seen from behind — its bare bottom chiming with O’Reilly’s.

John Kelly’s “Hands Out Self-Portrait” is like an Egon Schiele come to life — or inkjet print, as the case might be. Two of Slava Mogutin’s four self-portraits show him in leather, which calls to mind the work of Robert Mapplethorpe . As it happens, there’s a Mapplethorpe in the show, though there’s nothing provocative about it. The photographer stares at the camera with such innocence he could be an angel who’s wandered into a mug shot.

Francesca Woodman’s three self-portraits don’t refer to art history. Yet they evoke Surrealism in how they play with appearance, provide unexpected juxtapositions, and display the inexplicable specificity of dreams. Not yet 23, Woodman committed suicide in 1981. Even without knowing that awful fact, a viewer can’t help but notice how unsettling these images are, with their sense of the evanescent and otherworldly.


Photography and painting interact to startling effect in Andre Bradley’s “I Learned About Race Today” and Yasumasa Morimura’s “Brothers (slaughter I).” Bradley offers an arresting spill of black paint on wood. Only on closer inspection does the viewer note a small photocopy of Bradley’s yearbook photo, high up amid the blackness. As for Morimura, he takes as a point of departure one of the most famous paintings in the canon, Goya’s “The Third of May.” The twist is Morimura substitutes his own photographed face for that of the man in white being executed at the center of the work. The result is at once very grim, the grimness diluted by art-historical familiarity, and very funny.

Other instances of wit are fairly rare. Perhaps the self is too serious a subject to make light of — especially when the self in question is yours. The title of Sol LeWitt’s “The Area of Manhattan Between the Places Where Sol LeWitt Has Lived! 115 E. 34th St., 185 Ave. C, 42 Montgomery St. and 117 Hester St.” is hilariously self-explanatory, as well as indicating just how unconventional it is as a view of the artist. Unconventional in a very different way is Ann Hamilton’s use of her mouth as a pinhole camera. The result is a view of herself that’s very up close and very personal.



At RISD Museum, 20 N. Main St., Providence, through Nov. 5. 401-454-6500,

Mark Feeney can be reached at