The photographic lens has the ability to curate a tableau. Tone captured by an ominous shadow, or an entire life story in unwavering eye contact with a single shudder click. A character and the surrounding scene can be completely manipulated by a photographer to present an alter ego of sorts.
It’s a style of photography that permeates the work of Meryl Miesler, who’s series from the 60s and 70s is on show in theSteven Kasher Gallery in New York. Turning the lens on herself as she appropriates classic identities, like a ballerina and a girl scout, she explores the varying narratives of a classic American childhood. London-based photographer Juno Calypso is another creative molding an intriguing story for her second self Joyce, a construction of joyless, modern femininity, on display at London’s TJ Boulting gallery.
From an eccentric drag character to a modern lonely heart, we explore the best of photography’s second selves.
Pop icon Andy Warhol spent a lifetime honing the image of himself the public engaged with. His self-portraits ranged from photo automat style strips to the long exposure neon prints of 1978 with a human skull as a prop. They came as silk prints, photographs and hulking paintings to mold his compelling persona in print. Living in an era that consumed theatrical aestheticism, surrounded by club kids, tragic musicians and doe-eyed muses, it could be said all of Warhol’s self-portraits were of his public alter ego.
Self-Portrait in Drag, 1981, saw him collaborate with photographer Christopher Makos. Influenced by Man Ray’s photographers of Rrose Selavy, the female alter ego of Duchamp, Warhol refused to hide his masculine face, using the wig and make-up to bring his androgyny to exposure and heighten his own mystique.
To an audience of over 90K followers on Instagram, Amalia Ulman performed a narrative of excess and unattainable beauty in her Excellences & Perfections project. After a horrific bus crash that left her bedbound in a Pennsylvanian hospital with nothing but her iPad for company, Ulman invented a character for her social media: an aspiring actress with a lux lifestyle and a healing boob job.
She spent four months on her project, photographing herself posing with $100 bills, touching her pout with a fresh manicure and the climax of her series, bound with surgical tape for her faux augmentation.
At a panel at last year’s Art Basel with Instagram, she asked: “How do we consume things and how do they consume us?” In a world run by influencers and IG famous kids, Ulman explores how double tapping validates today’s narrow beauty standards and personal branding.
With the help of prosthetics, stark makeup and digital doctoring, Cindy Sherman has created a kaleidoscope of identities for herself on film. Each character is designed by Sherman with their own complex personalities and narratives: the overly-aged society women, the reflective, solitary women of film, the frightening clowns.
Her Untitled Film Still, 1978 series evokes the resemblence of women in classic film publicity posters: a catalogue of femme fatales, dark-eyed damsels and unsatisfied housewives from film noir, old Hollywood and arthouse indies. Together, it’s a roster of women that tell the story of a narrow cultural narrative the industry sets for women.
Speaking to the New York Times in 1990, Sherman said: “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.”
“I think of becoming a different person. I look into a mirror next to the camera and it’s trance-like. By staring into it I try to become that character through the lens…when I see what I want, my intuition takes over – both in the ‘acting’ and in the editing. Seeing that other person that’s up there, that’s what I want. It’s like magic.”
Switching places with women from her seaside photography shoots, Trish Morrissey presents Front. It’s not Awkward Family Photos level of cringe, but Morrissey is playful in her presentation of an imagined family life. She would approach families on the beach, and ask to take a photo with them, usually taking over the role of the mother and wearing an item of her clothing as a kind of talisman. She also makes use of period props and clothing in her alternate reality, as well the typical elements of the family tableau we’re all familiar with, like fingers in front of the lens and kids playing up. What we’re left wondering is what’s really going on in the collective characters families portray to the outside world in their picturesque holiday snaps.
Calypso’s alter ego Joyce was birthed among tacky decorations, salmon pink wallpaper and plastic artifacts of the 80s. Her soulless eyes tell a story of dissatisfaction, surrounded by the hyper-real ideals of modern femininity. Calypso places herself as the dead-eyed Joyce in a claustrophobic office setting, face down on the lino with a tin of cold meat, and with her face enclosed in a retro electric face mask. Joyce, according to Calypso, grapples a sense of disillusion with the feminine construct she finds herself participating in: “If Pedro Almodóvar hadn’t come up with it first I would have really enjoyed calling this project ‘women on the verge of a nervous breakdown’.”
She spent a weekend honeymooning alone at a love hotel in Pennsylvania for her series The Honeymoon, exploring the absurdity of female identity and imposed rights of passage for the ultimate woman. She explained how Joyce began to evolve during the process.
“I feel like she is becoming more dominant in her demeanour, rather than looking worn out and defeated. She’s still pissed off, but she isn’t in despair,” she said in an interview with Dazed. “I used to take pictures of Joyce as a way of making a critique on the laboured construction of femininity, but now I’m starting to see that the problem isn’t the make-up and bizarre body improvement devices, but the way society treats women who invest so deeply in their appearance.”