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Self-Expression in Photography

In visual art, self-expression involves conveying the personal perspectives and experiences of an artist through creative means. For photographers, self-expression is the action of making thoughts or feelings known with photographic media.

Sindy Süßengut

From the earliest cave paintings to contemporary practice, humans have evoked art as a means to express ideas and experiences for millennia. Angelo Poliziano, a Renaissance scholar and poet, discussed the notion of articulating individuality in the context of being compared to the Roman lawyer, writer and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero:

Someone might object, "But you do not express yourself like Cicero". What of it? I am not Cicero. But I think I express my own self

Later, the Romantic movement held that the expression of feelings is the heart of art and the Expressionists emphasized the need to draw artistic inspiration from within the self, rather than copying an external scene. In turn, artworks previously evaluated through strict compositional precepts eventually began to be assessed by the aesthetic investment of an artist's self-expression.

Examples of Self-Expression in Photography

Photographers translate their thoughts, observations, experiences and physicality through a vast range of approaches, gear, knowledge and techniques, with many disciplines and technologies intersecting to form dynamic photographic imagery. One key example of this is Picasso's light drawings, where the very nature of his abstract undertakings with Gjon Mili point to self-expression manifesting in gesture and experimentalism within an active photographic process. Through photography, Mili and Picasso transcended a single artistic medium to define self-expression as the culmination of many different aspects.

To express a personal perspective, many photographers turn to self-portraiture. In the introduction to his publication Certain People: A Book of Portraits 14, Robert Mapplethorpe is quoted as saying that his self-portraits express the part of him that is most self-confident. This observation embraces the camera as both a tool to document self-expression and a process to draw out emotional states or personas that are less known to the photographer and others.

Mapplethorpe's photographs of other subjects are also a testament to his creative essence. In 2009 an exhibition titled Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form was held at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Exhibited alongside Renaissance masterpieces, Mapplethorpe's work represented the expression of a photographer who relentlessly sought perfection in subjects ranging from still life to portraiture. This emphasizes the fact that, in many ways, photography is an inescapable exhibition of the self, as the knowledge, narrative, vision, experience, and technique of every photographer is manifested in each photograph taken.

Another iconic self-portraitist was Andy Warhol, an artist who famously favoured Polaroids as a means to chronicle and express the self. Exhibiting himself with different people, props, makeup, wigs and clothing, these Polaroids go some way to representing the inner calculations and insecurities of the king of Campbell's soup cans, providing a glimpse into the way he viewed and projected himself and the way he articulated an artistic individuality which spanned a wide range of formats.

But not all photographic self-expression is made up of self-portraiture. Indeed, there are countless ways to express the self through every form of photography. For example, intentional camera movement (ICM) photography relies on the gestures a photographer makes during an exposure, generating an abstract and unrepeatable example of self-expression. Another example is street photography, where a photographer captures the outward experiences of urban life while building insight into the experiences and habits of the camera operator at the same time.

Megan Kennedy ICM photography self expression abstract
Megan Kennedy

Many photographers choose to demonstrate an expression of the self through symbolism. By incorporating historically or personally meaningful symbols, a photographer can build up coded layers of dialogue within an image. Colors can reflect emotions, as can lighting. Exposure techniques mirror individual approaches to photography and location selection can document personal associations with specific environments. Even the selection of a photographic medium is relevant, as it articulates the process undertaken in order to explore and express the self. For example, the first self-portrait made by Robert Cornelius in 1839 required a 10-15 minute exposure. Knowing this, the image comes to represent patience, time and reflection, evidence of photographic technological history.

Robert Cornelius | 1839 | Public Domain self expression photography history
Robert Cornelius | 1839 | Public Domain

Self-expression can also be articulated through post-production. Although Photoshop dominates the modern notion of photo manipulation, photographers have seen a long history in the alteration of images to reflect the self. To better express the nature of his dreams, Jerry Uelsmann relied on multiple exposures and used many enlargers to achieve his surreal imagery. Another example is Portrait of the Photographer, a manipulated self-portrait by Gertrude Käsebier that positions the photographer as a confident user of both traditional and new artistic technologies.

Portrait of the Photographer, a manipulated self-portrait by Gertrude Käsebier
Portrait of the Photographer | Gertrude Käsebier |1899

How to Express the Self With Photography - Seven Tips


Whether the photograph is a self-portrait or an urban abstract, each image is a culmination of ideas and memories to exhibit, explore and build upon. But to expand a self-expressive photographic practice, photographers dedicate much time to experimentation, research and introspection. While self-expression is a highly personal aspect of creativity, it is an ongoing process and there are always aspects to consider and revisit.

Define Motivations

Motivation is the process that starts, guides, and maintains creative behaviors. When the goal is to express the self through photography, identifying the pivotal motivations behind a photographic undertaking leads to work with greater conceptual depth. Defining motivations involves asking questions like:

  • What do I want to say through photographic images?

  • Why do I want to take on this project?

  • How does this project reflect my thinking and practice?

  • How can I incorporate my own experience into a body of work?

The manifestation of motivation can be seen in countless examples throughout photographic history. Cindy Sherman identifies and dismantles stereotypes in art history through the duality of her own self-expression. Motivated by a fascination with identity, Sherman explores visual and cultural codes of art, gender, celebrity and photography. Interestingly, in some ways, Sherman's adoption of other personas and appearances causes the erasure of her own image, yet her motivation for analyzing and deconstructing identity remains a consistent theme throughout decades of work.

Forge Personal Trends

The point of self-expressive photography isn't to copy others but to create a dialogue that is faithful to the self. This isn't to say that drawing inspiration from others is detrimental to self-expression, but copying directly from a source can turn a work into an exercise of comparison rather than a meeting of photography and the self. To build on an idea, practical research plays a vital role in developing technical and creative approaches, but avoid relying heavily on trends if they don't serve the greater creative goal of self-expression.

Marek Piwnicki

Strive For Mastery

Ansel Adams once said a photograph is not merely taken but made. Developing and honing technical knowledge will lead to a greater potential for self-expression - as more skills and techniques are developed, more tools are made available to best achieve the artistic expression of the self. While no one can ever truly master photography (there is always room to grow) taking steps to expand and maintain theoretical and practical knowledge with the aim of forming a personal voice are key to sound self-expression.

Embrace Chance

Knowing a camera or a photographic process inside-out is extremely beneficial to all exponents of photography. However, the nature of chaos or chance is an unpredictable element that can transform an image of self-expression. Much of photography relies on chance to some extent, though some embrace it more than others. Created without the use of a camera, Wolfgang Tillmans' initially accidental Freischwimmer series captures an essence that is unique to both the photographer and photography overall.

Freischwimmer 26 | Wolfgang Tillmans | 2003
Freischwimmer 26 | Wolfgang Tillmans | 2003

Created in the darkroom through the manipulation of light sources over light-sensitive paper, Tillman's work references the cameraless photography of his predecessors, aligning himself with historic photographers such as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. By embracing the potential of chance, new and revealing opportunities for self-expression become apparent.

Focus on What You Love

It may sound like a clichéd suggestion, and it can be easy to say do what you love without knowing the circumstances of someone's photographic practice. However, there is some benefit to knowing and photographing favorite subjects. Focusing on a well-loved subject means returning to the imagery that sparked or maintained a photographic journey.

Rohro Clark

From bird photography to urban landscapes, take stock of what you love to photograph and be sure to revisit them frequently. This allows for personal self-expression through the perspective of enthusiasm and experience. Every photograph has a unique personal signature, and developing a body of work from a foundation of passion can exhibit self-expression at its most compelling.

Try New Photographic Techniques

Testing new photographic techniques broadens the potential for self-expression. Most popularly utilized by proponents of Dadaism, photomontage was satirical and sometimes nonsensical in nature. Incorporating a jumble of photographic images, these collages expressed the inner thoughts of many artists who felt compelled to call into question a society capable of starting and then prolonging the First World War. For example, Max Ernst used photographs from the press to express his traumatic experience of the war itself. Photomontage was later adopted by the surrealists who exploited the possibilities of photomontage and free association to bring together a juxtaposition of images that reflect the unconscious mind. Without experimentation, this form of photographic self-expression may not have been developed until much later.

Anna Atkins cyanotype self-expression in photography
Anna Atkins

Photographic art, though popularly reliant on the camera, can also be made from cameraless processes. This means that self-expression in photography is not exclusively linked to the camera, but to photographic principles. Anna Atkins' cyanotypes are a fascinating scientific record of botanic specimens, with the artist's rigorous work ethic and creative instinct embedded in each print. Today, working with the cyanotype speaks to the history of photography, as well as the skill and process of the maker. By working without a camera, a new physicality and slowness is introduced to photographic image-making, which also speaks to an artist's self-expression through the nature of visual inquiry.

Ask the Question

We've seen that self-expression doesn't rely on self-portraiture. From urban landscapes to still life, all photographs say something about the photographer, but recognizing the most impactful images and practices can take time and reflection. When building a body of work based around self-expression, ask yourself what does this photograph say about me? This question can help identify patterns and trends in personal photography as well as helping to maintain a cohesive series.



Life - Picasso Drawing with Light | Robert Mapplethorpe - The Tate | Photomontage - The Tate | Anna Atkins - MOMA | Library of Congress - Robert Cornelius


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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.


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