Authorship and Ownership in the Photographic Self-Portrait


Every painter paints himself”. One of the most quotable sound-bites of the Renaissance, and one that’s always at hand when portraiture is on the agenda. In our modern age, the phrase should be updated to be more multimedia friendly, but its implications – both literal and metaphoric – still stand. The self-portrait of the artist is considered a cornerstone of any oeuvre; in some cases – such as with Rembrandt or Warhol – it comes to define it entirely. But what really is a self-portrait, particularly now in the age of photography? Such a straightforward term come to us loaded, ill-defined and heavily subjective, raising questions about the role of the artist, the trouble of ownership, and the meaning of art itself.

A few weeks ago, I found myself moving house. In my room, while moving things from place to place, not really achieving anything of note, I picked up the staple of the female arts student’s wardrobe – my big black hat. A little dusty, because it always seems a bit of commitment to wear a hat if you’re not in the habit, and a non-square item to be packed when I’ve really run out of energy. As I suspected it would make him look like a puritan witch hunter, I put it on my attendant boyfriend for safe-keeping. The result was a bit more Village People-esque, and so it seemed only right to record it for posterity. Regardless of its pleather and formation dancing undertones, it ended up being a keeper, and so I sent it over to said boyfriend for his personal files. Back to packing; forget minor hat frolics, continue. A few days ago, my boyfriend happened to post the picture on Instagram. Pausing in my scrolling to remember the hilarity of its origin – that’ll be an anecdote one day, I thought, really one to warm up the crowd – I happened to notice the caption. Self-portrait with Hat. Hmm. Not really. Did you spot the mistake? Later that day opportunity arose to point out the error. “It’s not a ‘self-portrait’. I took the picture”. Knowing boyfriend, too well-trained by recent visits to galleries and my world-class conversation, gives a wry smile. “Yes, but I made it”.


And, according to Danto and Dickie’s theories of aesthetics, he’s completely right. In the twentieth century, the parameters of what art could be were blown apart by the advent of modernity. What was art, if anything could be art? Danto and Dickie, both philosophers championing Institutional Theory, had ideas. In 1964, Danto suggested that art could only exist in the climate – the institution – of ‘The Artworld’. If there are not people recognising the status of art, and dividing certain objects into this separate class, then art cannot exist as a concept. This was the case in the Middle Ages, when works we undoubtedly consider art today were merely viewed as the creations of nameless craftsmen, serving a purpose, and being decorative. Simple enough. Dickie then expanded on this in 1971:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artefact 2) on which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.

For Dickie, the existence of the artworld is not just necessary for the concept of art to exist and be used; the existence of the artworld is what creates art. Individuals within the artworld – artists, art historians, curators, collectors, viewers – determine whether something is art or not. So, when tourists took photos of that discarded pair of glasses in San Francisco a few weeks ago, they were transforming it into art. Rather than being duped by litter, casting doubt on contemporary art as a category and giving us all a good laugh, they were proving Danto and Dickie to be right. Art, it seems clear, is in the eyes of the beholder. When I posed the photo, when I took the photo, when I sent the photo – it was just an image. By naming is as an artwork, my boyfriend defined it as art. Just as the gallery-goers entranced by the mislaid spectacles were the creators of them as a work of art, so did he become the artist of this image.

Nonetheless, this highly pedestrian episode provokes a few questions as to the role of the artist, and how much of a hand they need have in the creation of their works in order to claim them. Prior to studying the contemporary, I always found it extremely disappointing to find out that an artist had outsourced their labour. Despite the vast complexity and variation present within the category of contemporary art, it apparently remains instinctual to assume that the terms ‘artist’ and ‘maker’ will be embodied in a single person – rather than the former being a star and the latter being unnamed and unknown, perhaps even a machine. This comes despite a rich tradition of artists relying on the labour of others – both in the workshops of old and in the factories of today. However, in terms of self-portraiture, the issue of ownership and the creator’s identity is clearly a recent phenomenon. For all his pupils, no one could claim that Rembrandt’s portraits did not deserve the title of ‘self’ – months in the studio are a fairly reliable guarantor. It is only since the dawn of photography as an artistic medium that this sort of thing could be questioned, particularly in our age of hyper-recording – where everyone photographs and is photographed more than ever before. I think it’s only apt, then, to illustrate this issue by selecting two artists who have thrived upon and lived within the modern incarnation of the artist’s Cult of Self; two YBAs, Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Johnson.


To start with, I offer Taylor-Johnson’s work as an archetype of clear authorship. In Self-portrait with a Single-Breasted Suit and Dead Hare (2001) Taylor-Johnson clearly shows herself to be what we so often expect: a single person fulfilling both the dual roles of artist and maker. Despite being fully in the frame and sans camera (no mirror pics here), the button in her hand clearly indicates that it is Taylor-Johnson herself who has not just choreographed the image and named it as art, but also captured it. Here, the presence of this device acts as both as a signature, and also as paint on the artist’s figurative apron. Like her predecessors who depicted themselves studio-bound, at the easel, robed in stained smocks, Taylor-Johnson shows herself in the act of creation. The art work is simultaneously its own conception and first breath. The single image reveals the entire process, resulting in a portrait which we are sure is entirely made by the depicted and named ‘self’.


You might not have heard of Hirst’s Self-portrait with Dead Head (1991) – but you’re unlikely to ever forget it once you’ve seen it. In the image, a teenage and grinning Hirst poses in the Leeds Anatomy School, in the too-close company of a severed head. I’ve seen it quite a few times now, and each time I can never quite believe it; for all the horror films I’ve watched, all the anatomy museums I’ve been to, all the true-crime documentaries I’ve stayed up late for – I’ve never actually seen a dead body. I’ve seen parts of them, but never one that proclaimed itself so much a ‘part’ as this, and not one freed from the vitrine, the page or the screen.  But it’s not the head we’re here for. We’re here for Hirst. As an artwork, Hirst originally released fifteen prints of this image (one of which is held by the Tate).  Eight years later he produced a further thousand to be scattered into the waiting hands of collectors across the world. That was in 1991 and 1998, respectively. But, even if you don’t know much about Hirst, you’ll realise that he’s not that much of a Young British Artist for the picture to have been taken then.

In fact, the photo was taken when Hirst was sixteen, in the early 1970s. The Tate’s listing for the work contains extracts of Hirst’s own words, in which he describes its creation:

“If you look at my face, I’m actually going: ‘Quick. Quick. Take the photo.’”

Not talking to himself, Hirst is instructing a (still anonymous) fellow art student to record the image. Hirst is not the camera holder; he is not the maker of the image. At some point in the intervening twenty years, the image becomes the sitter’s possession. And, with the creation of the prints, and the conference of a title, the sitter transformed the photo into a work of art. Beyond that, Hirst also transfigures himself from sitter to artist. Despite not making the image, and despite a time gap of two decades, Hirst has asserted himself as creator of the piece as an art work.

While linguistically and conceptually the difference between these two works creates a curiosity, the ethical and legal implications of this become more complex. In my own case (and, seemingly, in Hirst’s), this was of little consequence. Though Hirst and his photographer both were, neither myself nor my boyfriend are artists; neither of us will or could forge reputation and earn cash from the image we debated. But this is not always the case. Let’s pose a hypothetical: Sam Taylor-Johnson and Damien Hirst are at a Goldsmith’s reunion having artist fun. The both take pictures of each other, simultaneously, which turn out to be moody and cool and atmospheric. They exchange them so that they both have the complete pair. What happens if they publish the images of themselves as Self-Portrait at Reunion without the consent of the other? Both are working artists, both created one image, but not the one they have turned into art, not the one they claim to now be the maker of. If you adhere to Danto and Dickie, this is perhaps all fair play. But, artists cannot live on bread alone, and so the situation in reality could become a lot more difficult.

That’s obviously a very hypothetical hypothetical. But the point is that, where the photographic self-portrait is concerned, there is potential for abuse of the loose definition of both artist and art. While the proposed situation was a little far-fetched, it is not impossible. Usually, when two artists can both lay claim to the authorship of the work, it is the one that is more canonically dominant who will assert their position as ‘artist’. This could be a dominance assumed due to race, social class or material wealth. However, often, as frequently the case we find ourselves faced with is a question of artist lovers, this will be due to gender, and the victor will be the male. As we now battle to rediscover the women artists whose outputs were choked, whose developments were stifled and whose ideas were plagiarised by their male counterparts, these issues become more and more pertinent. Are Man Ray’s photos of fellow artist Lee Miller portraits by him, or self-portraits by her with him pushing the button? Or Georgia O’Keefe as photographed by Alfred Steiglitz? Historically they have been accepted as the former but it would be perfectly reasonable to follow Hirst’s example and claim otherwise. There are countless other cases when this principal could be applied.

I think, really, that that is at the root of the fundamental difference between these two images. I do not mean to suggest that Taylor-Johnson was insecure about her status, or that she is any less of an artist than Hirst, or deserves to be seen as subordinate to him – she absolutely does not.  And it is true that many female artists – Sarah Lucas, for example – do photograph themselves without including a visual signature in the composition. Nonetheless, the fact remains that here a female artist clearly proclaims and records her authorship beyond reproach, while a male reveals his own lack, but masters the piece as his anyway. Where ownership is concerned, for an artist already potentially on the back foot due to factors beyond their control, those who risk being denied credit for the authorship of their own image must state a claim to it before somebody beats them to it. Calling a work ‘self-portrait’ is enough to imply that you’re the maker, as it was you that made it art.

The fact of it is, when anyone can create art with a word or a glance, anyone could create yours.



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