Art / by Jack Ruttan

Double Exposed

Touching: The Self - Photographs by Diana Thorneycroft at Dazibao Gallery, 1992

First published in the Montreal Mirror


Against my will, a certain silly double-meaning phrase popped into my head as I thought about these photographs by Diana Thorneycroft.

"Self Exposure" -- which is what she's doing, in every sense. These are pictures the artist took of herself, naked; which is something not uncommon (indeed, these days hard to avoid) in contemporary photography.

Thorneycroft says she began taking self-portraits at first not for their own sake, but because it was too expensive hiring models to pose for her drawings. Then, looking at the photographs, she became interested in the idea that they seemed more "real" than drawings, even though both were simply images on paper. This is almost a superstitious concept in our culture, close to the belief that a photograph can "steal your soul." Perhaps photographs are in truth an easy form of astral projection, letting us slip outside our bodies and have a look from a different point of view.

Looking at her body, Thorneycroft was struck by how the person in the photos seemed to suggest different characters. With her short hair and narrow build, she saw in herself both male and female figures, images from media, and most importantly for her, members of family. She began making pictures with props that accentuated the perceived similarities, such as masks of her family made from photographs, and plastic sexual organs.

Even the way she takes the pictures suggest some private, self-revealing ritual. She works in a totally darkened room, alone with her props and camera. Setting the camera with its shutter open she goes in front, and, with eyes closed, or wearing a mask without eyeholes, assumes her pose. Turning on a flashlight, she plays it over herself and her surroundings for about five minutes, making the exposure.

One interesting fact is that all of these pictures have one hand out of focus -- the one holding the flashlight. It gives her figures the appearance of making some kind of signal. At times it looks like she's waving.

Another terrible punning phrase: "Self-Exploration." Is this something that can be done alone in the dark with a flashlight?

Though no one except the camera sees her in these sessions, she calls them "performances." Behind her masks perhaps she is doing a photographic version of the dances certain tribes did with masks representing spirits. As the dance progressed, the spirits ended up possessing the dancers, just as Thorneycroft slips into different identities via photography. In either case, it must have been an intense experience for the artist.

Intense for the artist maybe, but for the viewer here as well? Surprisingly, for the random way they were exposed, these pictures are formally very good looking. (Random production, but careful selection?) They are so intimate and personal that our curiousity brings us in to look, but the cold glare of the masks, and other frightening imagery such as crosses, guns and warplanes drives us away again. The eyes of the masks are unnerving. Looking directly ahead no matter which way the figure's head is turned, they are dead spots on a living body. They remind us how much we depend on people's eyes to communicate. But then, come to think of it, all eyes in photographs are dead. It's only we with our imaginations giving them the power to communicate.

These pictures are examples of one of the most fascinating properties of good new art: self awareness. They bring to the surface all the double meanings, contradictions and paradoxes images have always carried deep down. We just were never made aware of it as much. Thorneycroft's work is emotional, personal and psychological, while at the same time reminding us that everything it tells us is a lie.

< Back to Reviews