- Autobio-Photography: Beauty and the “I” of the Beholder
“Autobio-photography,” is not meant to propose new categories for either autobiography or photography, but rather to call attention to the relationship of photographer to photograph, a relationship that often plays a part—leading or misleading—in the assessments that both viewer and creator have of a finished photographic product. Making use of work of various photographers, as well as criticism and theory of photography, I shall consider in this essay how information about a photographer’s gender, race, ethnicity and inclinations is variously included or excluded from that photographer’s work, so that autobiographical references may or may not be explicit or important in thinking of and responding to the work.
At issue here are several items. In an era of acknowledged cultural pluralism, it is difficult to believe that a person has been formed by one and only one unamalgamated (or unamalgamating culture). People today can be of several cultures: American and Moslem or Jew; American but Spanish, English or other speaking; African American, Asian American, Native American, or European American—to name just an obvious few. To determine whether a person is being “faithful” or observant of just one cultural tradition becomes at best complicated and, at worst, specious. At an individual level, the difficulty reoccurs in slightly different but related form since a single person can simultaneously or sequentially be part of different groups: at once a baseball player but also a football [End Page 543] player; both a cop and a criminal; both a psychiatrist and crazy; both left-handed and right-handed; both an academic and a photographer; divorced and married. Society accepts some of these combinations as harmonious, others as perplexing, and still others, finally, as “impossible” or inadmissible.
We will see that, in looking at photographs, some viewers likewise want the photographer to be on one or the other side of the fence, or desire the photographer to be on both sides of the camera, photographing the self. Where this is not quite possible, some—including photographers themselves—would work out a proof that the photographer, though author of the photograph, has the consent and even collaboration of whoever is in the photograph: that photographer and photographee are comfortable with one another, in a more or less even exchange. Similarly, many viewers would like to feel that, if the photographer’s attention goes beyond the self, “good intentions” have been a part, even the determining portion, of the photographer’s relationship with a subject. Examples for such reflections are drawn first from the work of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton, followed by, in a somewhat different context, consideration of the work of Jean Mohr, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastião Salgado, Roy DeCarava and Nobuo Nakamura.
Implicit to autobiography are self-reference and reference checking: autobiographers refer to the self, and the reader regularly draws lines connecting that “self” and its teller. Philippe Lejeune, in On Autobiography, addresses the often central nature of the verifications proferred in and out of the autobiographical text by the author and concocted by the reader. Lejeune thoroughly demonstrates that of autobiography’s many elements, sincerity is one regularly called into play. We expect the autobiographer to tell a tale generally free of subterfuge, and we expect to gain insight at least into the life of the teller and, better, into the lives of others and ourselves as well. When autobiographers deviate from easily verifiable facts as, for example, does Zora Neale Hurston whose autobiographical image presented in Dust Tracks on a Road does not conform with the facts of either...