Selfies from the past, revealing but concealing

Powerhouse Museum collection, object 93/178/4. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.
Powerhouse Museum collection, object 93/178/4. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.

Selfies are rampant today. We can see the phenomenon as harmless fun, as creative self-expression, or perhaps as a threat to civilisation, drowning us in egocentric banality. But of course people have long indulged in self-portraiture, and today I want to focus on an unusual pair of selfies that reveal one man in contrasting settings, telling us two stories about himself. This first image, created in 1947, portrays professional photographer Adolf Lazi as strong and calm, a connoisseur of Chinese sculpture and interested in books. He is playing to the camera without looking into the lens. Because he refuses to let us look into his eyes, the portrait is a little unsettling: while we see something about his relationship to the external world, we are not privileged with a glimpse of the inner Adolf.

PowerhouseMuseum collection, object 93/178/2. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.
Powerhouse Museum collection, object 93/178/2. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.

The second image, created around 1928, portrays Lazi as a contemplative man, a reader content to sit in a comfortable chair surrounded by books and plants. He sinks into the photo rather than dominating it. Although this image is more naturalistic than the later one, we are aware that the portrait was artfully composed: the curtains are arranged just so, letting light fall where Lazi wishes; the stripes in the furniture fabric are repeated in the curtains, the shadows and the array of books on the shelves; and perhaps the plants in their small ceramic pots were specially arranged for the shot. Again, we do not see into his eyes, and we do not feel that the photograph reveals much about its subject’s self.

Do you think today’s click-and-send selfies, whether contrived or spontaneous, tell us more about their subjects than Adolf Lazi was willing to disclose? I guess the vast majority will prove to be ephemeral, but museums and galleries will probably save a selection for posterity, and future commentators will probably feel moved to write about their cultural meanings, what they reveal and conceal about their subjects and their world.

Written by Debbie Rudder, Curator.

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