Category Archives: Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing

Exercise 3.2 – aspects of personality

This exercise requires me make a list of some unique aspects of my personality then set about expressing these attributes through a photograph.

I noted that the exercise does not use the word ‘portrait’ on this occasion.

I reflected on a few ideas then went for a walk around the city of Derby.  I opted for a gritty black and white aesthetic to echo the darker, more melancholy, shadow-self that resides below the happy, cheerful persona that other people identify with as being ‘Ian’:

_IMG2767 There is a constant conflict within me of wanting structure and order vs. seeking a simpler, less structured life where random fun things happen.

After taking this I also considered that there’s a voyeuristic element to this image – as though a person unknown is watching me through a venetian blind.  I fear our gradual loss of civil liberties caused by CCTV, internet surveillance, and so on as we cannot be assured that those watching us always have good intent.


_IMG2766This image describes me on two levels.  I love to be alone in nature, especially near trees and water.  Despite being in the centre of a busy city this rower have found his own quiet space, the image framed to exclude the surrounding buildings and bridges.

Like me, he’s seeking to enjoy a journey as much as the achievement of the destination.  No competitiveness, no challenge.  Just being, moving, travelling.



Is this graffiti reflecting my nature of wanting to help and support people?  Or is it a mirror, reminding me how often I don’t do this?



I’m easily discouraged by obstacles.  I’m trying to learn to step back and see the way around them.


I feel very inspired to develop this into a body of work and, for this reason alone, has been excellent at helping me out of a bit of a rut.  Compared to previous OCA courses I am finding the portraiture in I+P to be more challenging, so it was good to be ‘let off the portraiture leash’ for a while and take photos I enjoy again.

My idea is to consider developing this to see how this mirror of self, portrayed through inanimate objects, changes over time.  Perhaps a photobook over a year.  Like keeping a written journal but containing photographs.  It will be fascinating to see how feelings, mood, style and environment work together and evolve over a period of time.  I need to be careful to ensure that this introspective self indulgence doesn’t become all consuming though.   While I adore the work of Francesca Woodman, things didn’t end up well for her, as we know.  There are also aspects of the self-exploration into the troubled life of Claude Cahun here, as already explored in detail by Gillian Wearing:

Often a fan of bold ‘Martin Parr like’ primary colours and implied humour, it was interesting to explore this darker side of self.  I believe we all have one inside us.  Hopefully the viewer would feel that they knew something of my personal journey when they reached the end of it.  Although it should really be a personal journal that triggers other ideas and thoughts.  My tutor has encouraged the use of a paper-based photo scrapbook and journal for this purpose so I will combine the two some how.   I note that some people engage on ‘Project 365’ and ‘Photo a Day’ projects.


Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing: National Portrait Gallery

My tutor suggested I visit this as part of my feedback for Assignment 2.

Having encountered Wearing’s work before I instinctively disliked it, and so I expected the exhibition to be a challenge for me.  On the train to London I reflected upon why: did the idea of a mask make me uncomfortable?  Appropriating her own family members?  I felt that, as a photographer, I knew nothing of who she was, only what her relatives looked like.  

 It was clear that Cahun was a huge influence on Wearing.  Cahun was a French girl who transformed herself into the persona of a male over a period of several years in her teens and early adulthood.  Her dissatisfaction with herself gave rise to mental illness issues in her younger years, perhaps the frustration and madness being expressed in this image:

She said ‘behind this mask another mask, there can be no end to these disguises’.  It is as though she was tortured by a need to peel the onion of herself in the hope of finding a layer she was actually comfortable with.

With her partner Marcel Moore, she left France to be together in Jersey.  The exhibition suggests that many of the photos were actually taken by Moore rather than Cahun (leaving me to question who is really the photographer here).  When the Channel Islands were invaded the Germans imprisoned her for working at great personal risk for the resistance.

This image was taken towards the end of Cahun’s personal transformation (visually at least) into a man. She holds her head as though it were a mask being removed.  After all the changes in relationships, hair, clothing and where she lived, perhaps this is the symbolic moment where the mask is finally removed – she feels she is finally being her authentic self?



The Wearing part of the exhibition starts with a large print of her famous homage to Cahun, underlining the extent of the influence on Wearing from the outset.  However here Wearing holds a mask of herself while wearing one of Cahun.


Wearing started out studying are rather than photography.  She had an early fascination with masks and disembodied hands.  She also chronicled herself over several years using a Polaroid camera, raising questions about who we are really, how we evolve and change over time.

As the exhibition progresses towards the room housing Family Album, I found a growing appreciation for Wearing’s work.  She describes the people she emulates as people she admires – her ‘spiritual family’ as she calls them.  This includes other artists such as Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Sherman.  The mask becomes a substitute for the person that was once there.  Wearing goes behind the mask to find them as well as placing a camera in front of it.  Her empathy for her subjects comes through – there’s no effort to make them grotesque caracatures in masks, but to sympatheticly create a facimilie of the real thing.

Of course there is one flaw in every image’s authenticity, one that ties the images together as a set with a common theme and purpose – they all show Wearing’s eyes gazing directly back at the camera instead of the real owner’s.