'This Is Not a Selfie' tackles the interesting history of self-portraits

© Cindy Sherman, courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York Untitled Film Still #5 by Cindy Sherman.
© Cindy Sherman, courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York Untitled Film Still #5 by Cindy Sherman.
Published Sept. 10, 2018

Whoever said "the camera does not lie" has not seen the knockout exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

"This Is Not a Selfie" showers you with fun-house mirrors, doctored photos, historic references and an array of selfie stations through which you can add your own selfies to the show as well as post them to the internet.

Fittingly, this stunner of a show originates from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a venue not too distant from that capital of film magic, Hollywood.

Central to the idea of a self-portrait or "selfie" is identity, a concept that can include class, race, politics and celebrity as well as a personal shout-out to the online universe. Today, everyone can do that with a smartphone.

In the pre-internet 1970s, however, Cindy Sherman was riffing on our movie-centered culture when she photographed herself endless times. She wasn't making self-portraits so much as she was commenting on the media frenzies around her. She used her own face not to promote herself but to use it as a prop. Using the Hollywood tools of makeup, lighting and dramatic camera angles, she re-created what looks like an actual film still starring herself. Of course, she was never a Hollywood character.

It's all make-believe. But then, so are the movies.

"Some people have told me they remember the film that one of my images is derived from," Sherman once said. "But in fact, I had no film in mind at all."

Warren Neidich has carried on his own guerilla war with history in his 1993 "Unknown Artist" series. He added his own face to group photos of famous artists of the past. As the "unknown artist," he appears next to a young Salvador Dalí in one group photograph. He is next to a leather-jacketed Andy Warhol in another. By doctoring the original photos, he declared "an assault on a truly verifiable record," i.e. the documentary photograph.

Neidich wasn't the first artist to have fun with doctored identities. In 1927, T. Lux Feininger did a poetic take on stolen identity when he disguised himself as Charlie Chaplin, complete with mustache. You can see "The Little Tramp" in Feininger's photograph. It's a hazy face glancing at you through the frame of a picture or mirror. That's Feininger's way of telling you that this image is a fantasy.

With so much sleight of hand going on, how can you tell what is real? That question is a tease and a challenge to the viewer. It's also central to the collectors who assembled these 80 works from 66 artists, Audrey and Sydney Irmas. They started this collection of photographic self-portraits with work beginning more than 150 years ago. That's when the Parisian photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) posed himself wearing the most exotic costume he could find: that of an American Indian. The collection continues through 2011 with samples of Helmut Newton's overt eroticism, Andy Warhol's deadpan photo-booth selfies and Robert Mapplethorpe's stark self-portrait as he stares death in the face.

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Cultural politics takes center stage when a life-size Joseph Beuys strides toward the viewer like a young Che Guevara in his 1972 self-portrait. The German artist aimed to foster a social revolution through his art when he wrote at the bottom of his self-portrait in Italian, "La rivoluzione siamo noi (We are the revolution)."

Sexual politics is the subject when Claude Cahun deals with shifting male-female identities in I.O.U. (Self-Pride). In this work from 1929-1930, Cahun writes (in French), "Under this mask another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces."

Seen together, this exhibition also takes on today's media-saturated, photoshopped environment where many folks take self-portraits on their smartphones and post them instead of directly experiencing the moment.

Anne Collier's 2004 Mirror Ball reminds you of these fractured media experiences. The gleaming disco ball echoes today's pixelated maelstrom.

Pop star Adele knows all about selfie madness. She often performs in front of fans who are preoccupied with taking selfies at her concerts. She says she is used to seeing the glow of their smartphones from the stage.

"It's pretty because of the lights," she observed, "but no one is actually looking at the world."

Contact Joanne Milani at