Top 10 Self Portraits by famous artists – and not only photographers
Everybody is taking selfies these days, but the art of self-portraiture has been there for centuries. Van Gogh and Rembrandt were taking “selfies” long before Kim Kardashian and any other living person with a cell phone. And no, they didn’t use selfie sticks and not every self-portrait is an Instagram snapshot. The art of self-portraits is a true art form if you take it seriously. The great artists from the past were taking self-portraits for good artistic reasons, not just because it was ‘en vogue’. Several years ago I was so fascinated by self-portraits from other artists that it inspired me to write down the following on the art of self-portraiture back in 2009: “Self-portraits are in my view quintessential for how an artist views the world. The photographer captures the world around him and shows us how he views the world. But this world also consists of the artist him(her)self. Any world without a view of the artist himself through his own eyes is not a complete view of the world. Show me a thousand beautiful photos by a photographer of the world around him, and I will only know half the person. But show me also one self-portrait, and I will know the complete person.” I didn’t anticipate today’s selfie hype back then: I now see far too many views on the world on the Internet! Anyway, I still admire the self-portraits of famous artists I admired then, so here’s my personal list of the ten best self-portraits in the history of art. Yes, art, as in not-only-photography-but-also-painting. At least a few of them have inspired me to take self-portraits as well. Without a selfie stick that is…
1. Vincent van Gogh – 1853 – 1890
Famous Dutch and tormented painter admired all over the world. Created ‘Starry Night’, arguably his most famous painting, that is hanging in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. I’ve seen it, it’s impressive. Just like the crowds of people lining up in front of his painting. Also impressive is his life story as written down in Irving Stone’s must-read book “Lust for Life”, to get an idea of Van Gogh’s life, his time in the Belgian coal mines, the poverty he lived in, the love of his life and his creative passion that brought him to madness at the end of his life. Below, is Van Gogh’s self-portrait painting and a photo taken by another photographer at the age of 13. Spot the differences!
Quote: “I feel such a creative force in me: I am convinced that there will be a time when let us say, I will make something good every day, on a regular basis….I am doing my very best to make every effort because I am longing so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things mean painstaking work, disappointment, and perseverance.”
Van Gogh made about 40 self portraits during his life. This self portrait (left), dated 1889, was painted a year after Van Gogh cut off his ear. Considered to be his last, or one of his last, self portraits.
2. Rembrandt van Rijn – 1606 – 1669
Again a Dutch painter. Somehow the Dutch made quite an impression. This famous artist though, didn’t cut off his ear but he left a legacy that still influences artists in painting and especially also in photography. Every portrait photographer should know the famous Rembrandt Lighting. Rembrandt introduced a very specific lighting in painting: a triangle of light just below the eye on the side of the face that is covered in shadows. Every studio portrait photographer today knows about Rembrandt lighting and how to create this specific, dramatic lighting effect. Just one proof that it really pays off to not only study other photographers, when looking for inspiration, but also to study other visual art forms. One other famous example: the Italian painter Caravaggio introduced a dramatic feature in painting with harsh contrasts that is now called chiaroscuro. Another important style element in today’s photography every serious photographer should know about! Rembrandt produced over 90 self portraits, from 1620 to 1669. His most famous painting arguably is “The Night watch” which obviously isn’t a self portrait.
3. Richard Avedon – 1923 – 2004
Without a doubt one of the greatest portrait and fashion photographers the world has known. Not the first fashion photographer, that was Martin Munkacsi, one of Avedon’s inspirations, but certainly one of the most well-known. Avedon created many iconic photographs. His fashion photographs often had a lot of dynamic movement or a very low vantage point, shot from up close that almost distorted the view, but in a way that made the subject more ‘elegant’. Most of his portrait photographs had a simple white background and a head-to-waist shot with often a hand cut off and almost always with the typical Avedon framing: a black interrupted border. Of course, Avedon has created quite a few self-portraits as well, like so many reputed artists have done before and after him. I can highly recommend browsing the beautifully presented photos on Richard Avedon’s website.
4. Diane Arbus – 1923 – 1971
Diane Arbus often depicted ‘marginal’ people, the outsiders of society, sometimes leaving you disturbed as a viewer. She has been called “the photographer of freaks” (not my words) and looking at the people she portrayed in a way that can be uncomfortable for the viewer, from circus performers to dwarfs, twins, triplets, and transsexuals, you can perhaps understand why. It is said that Diane Arbus’ photo of the Identical Twins inspired film director Stanley Kubrick for the famous ‘twins scene’ in the film the Shining. Have a look at it yourself below. What is sure is that Kubrick was a professional photographer himself before venturing into cinematography and it shows in all of his beautiful scenes. Talking about cinematography: there’s a movie on the life of Diane Arbus played by Nicole Kidman called Fur. But I would recommend browsing her beautiful work.
5. Robert Mapplethorpe – 1946 – 1989
A ‘bad boy’ among photographers. Known for his portraits of famous people, with a preoccupation for nude muscular bodies or body parts, self-portraits, and still life work. He photographed Arnold Schwarzenegger at a time when Schwarzenegger was mostly known as the world’s best bodybuilder ever and not yet involved in Hollywood movies or American politics. He also photographed female bodybuilders like Lisa Lyons. His self-portraits are numerous and famous. His still life work has been very influential and he left the world with some of the most beautiful photographs of Calla lilies and other flowers. Funny fact: if you do a Google search on Mapplethorpe and still life or flowers you will see a lot of my humble still-life photos between Mapplethorpe’s on the first three rows of the first page with images. Proof that Mapplethorpe had a big influence on me.
6. Vivian Maier – 1926 – 2009
Vivian Maier, most famous for her wonderful street photography, also produced a large number of self portraits, often reflections in windows. Perhaps she could be labeled a self-portrait photographer of the streets. Maier, originally a nanny by day, and a photographer for the rest of the day, was a very private person who hid her photographs for the public very carefully. Due to that, her work, depicting urban life of New York and Chicago in the second half of the 20th century, was only discovered in 2007 and unveiled to the public by John Maloof who curates her work and also made a documentary film on Vivian Maier called ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘, nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2015. Maier’s fame as one of America’s most renowned street photographers, unfortunately only came posthumous. Have a look at her wonderful work. And self-portrait. And documentary.
(c) Copyright Estate Vivian Maier
7. Andy Warhol – 1928 – 1987
What can I add to what’s already known about Andy Warhol, the leading figure of a visual arts movement called Pop Art that integrated popular imagery into other visual media? He ‘Warholized’ himself in a self portrait in his very recognizable and typical way. Just like he did with other icons from modern culture like Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup. Warhol was an artist, photographer, painter, musician and so much more. A visionary. The saying ‘everyone will have his 15 minutes of fame’ was his, expressed before the Internet age, and how true that turned out to be now. Warhol, an icon himself who iconized 20th-century modern culture and its representatives.
8. Irving Penn – 1917 – 2009
Together with Yousuf Karsh and Richard Avedon, Irving Penn makes up for my personal ‘Holy Trinity of portrait and fashion photographers’. If you want to study portraiture then start with these photographers, then go back into art history and study some famous paintings from Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Frans Hals to name a few and that’s basically all the inspiration and information you need to become a good portrait photographer. If you want to come up with something really original then study paintings instead of only photographs. Irving Penn created breathtaking and iconic portraits of celebrities but also lesser-known people. The beautiful portrait of the woman with the hat is Lisa Fonssagrives, with whom Irving Penn married after a few photo shoots. He used her as a model for many of his photographs. For a photographer to evoke an emotion in the viewer it is needed to establish a connection between the photographer and subject. This interaction sounds obvious between the photographer and sitter in portraiture, but it also applies to the photographer and any other subject matter like a landscape, a building, or a still life. In those cases, the interaction is mostly non-verbal. Unless you are like Michael Kenna who likes to talk to his trees. Looking at Penn’s photographs of Fonssagrives shows how important this connection is.
All images (c) Copyright Irving Penn Foundation.
9. Annie Leibovitz – 1949 – present
American photographer who worked for Rolling Stone magazine and portrayed many stars from the world of music and helped define the look of Rolling Stone magazine. Leibovitz was also the last photographer to have photographed John Lennon for the very last time in a photo together with Yoko Ono that made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Leibovitz has an interesting way of lighting her subjects by combining ambient light by leaving the shutter open for a longer time for the background, with strobe lighting for a short exposure to light the subject. You could call this long exposure ambient strobe portraiture. Have a look at the video where she talks about this interesting and unusual technique for portrait lighting.
10. Anton Corbijn – 1955 – present
We started off this list with a Dutchman and we finish it with yet another Dutchman. If you haven’t heard of Anton Corbijn yet, then perhaps you’ve seen his work on the famous U2 album cover for the ‘Joshua Tree’. Corbijn is considered by many influential musicians to be their favorite portrait photographer. One of my personal favorites is Corbijn’s photo from Miles Davis with Miles’ fascinating hands covering large parts of his face, except for his eyes that almost seem to want to hypnotize the viewer. No other portrait could be more fitting for the great and fascinating artist that Miles Davis is than Corbijn’s interpretation of it. Another interesting aspect is to see how Corbijn created the album covers of groups, wherein it always seems as if the several group members are casually interacting with each other, instead of formally posing for the usual ‘classroom’ like group shot. Perhaps influenced by another Dutch painter famous for his group paintings: Frans Hals. Anton Corbijn now also ventured into the world of cinematography as director of the movie the American with George Clooney.