Women with Cameras (Self Portrait) is a collection of vernacular photographs of women making images of themselves in a mirror, often using point-and-shoot or flip-phone cameras, often with the flash on. These images, carefully selected by Collier, predate the proliferation of smartphones, and act as a capsule folk history of the personal camera in the distant-seeming era before social media.
Collier’s book links the photography of Vivian Maier and Kim Kardashian West, perhaps most simply by bridging the time periods in which the two photographers produced their work. But Collier’s book also highlights cultural shifts between Maier and Kardashian West’s respective eras, particularly concerning perceptions of privacy, fame, sex, and the concept of creating one’s own image.
Vivian Maier was born in 1926, and most of her self-portrait work was made in Chicago in the 1950s through the 1970s. Kim Kardashian West, born in 1980, published Selfish as a collection of her selfies taken between 2006 (when her job title was “Paris Hilton’s Stylist”) through 2014 (the year of her marriage to Kanye West). Presumably all of the images in Selfish were made in order to be shared through social media, with the exception an image Kim made with sister Khloé in 1984, identified in the book as her “first selfie.”
Kim Kardashian West is, of course, a celebrity of global proportions, a woman whose image is ubiquitous throughout the media landscape and who, as of January 2019, possesses the sixth-most-followed account on Instagram. At least some measure of Vivian Maier’s fame, on the other hand, derives from her apparent desire to remain anonymous. Maier was “vehemently private about her motivation to make images.” “We look at her self-portraits for revelations, but she does not really give us much, writes Elizabeth Avedon in her foreword to Self-Portraits. “She is alone in her reflections. Her viewpoint difficult to judge, no hint of emotion or reaction. Never a portrait with a partner. She is seldom with a friend…The strength of Maier’s character is found in the persona looking back at us. There is little compromise; and ironically for such a private, autonomous person, her self-portraits are some of her strongest work thus far.”
In addition to her reflection photos, Maier continually made portraits of her shadow. These shadow portraits present an antithesis to the glaring flash photography seen in Collier’s collection, and to the emphasis on the extremely visible self in Kardashian West’s selfies. Maier’s shadows transcend space and exude physicality; they project a phantom or facsimile of Maier onto the photo’s landscape while simultaneously binding her with the photograph itself. One of Maier’s portraits contains both her shadow (including her trademark hat) and her reflection, captured in a globular lawn ornament. The reflective orb distorts her body while also displaying it in its entirety. This photograph enlists Maier’s signature technique of framing and layering of subjects while retaining a playfulness in terms of space, surface and the perception of the viewer.
The timeline of Kim Kardashian West’s Selfish begins in 2006, one year before the leak of her sex tape and the premiere of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Most of Kardashian West’s early social media images were posted to her personal MySpace; using the Internet Wayback Machine, we can view a screenshot of her account. Her Top 8 notably includes recording artist Ray J, her boyfriend at the time and a fellow participant in the aforementioned sex tape. It’s inarguable that the February 2007 release of that tape skyrocketed Kardashian West into the upper echelons of modern celebrity, and I would argue that much of her social media presence in the wake of the tape is an effort to take control of how the media and fans perceive her. This is paralleled in the book, as there are less than 20 images before early 2007, when her image control began in earnest.
The timeline between the bulk of Maier’s photographs and Kim’s reclaiming of her own image through social media is neatly filled with the images in Women with Cameras. Collier’s book provides powerful insight to the social changes that connect Maier and Kardashian. The bulk of photos in Women with Cameras are from the 1980s and 1990s, but contain brief glimpses backward into the 1970s and also bleed over into the early aughts. If we were to order the images in Collier’s piece chronologically (as is the case with Selfie), the last image would be of a woman standing in a mirror, holding a digital camera at a skewed angle.
Based on the camera she is holding, this is obviously a born-digital image. It is a distinct possibility that this image that was originally posted to MySpace. Although Selfish doesn’t indicate where or if the photographs were posted online (save for one section to be discussed below), I think it is safe to assume that the majority of the photos were first publicly posted on her MySpace and, after 2010, on her Instagram account.
Selfish is an artist book. I like Selfish. But Women with Cameras and Self-Portraits each provide clear proof that the concept of women making their own image through cameras is not new. Although Maier’s inclination was to portray the more mysterious aspects of her personality, it is also clear that she enjoyed posing in her pictures. Collier’s image curation provides further evidence that women have been taking pictures of themselves looking and feeling sexy in the mirror for a very long time. So what makes Selfish such a culturally significant book?
For one thing, it’s designed well; Kim is, after all, concerned with aesthetic. But the design of Selfish also informs the story that the book wants to tell. Selfish “starts” less than a year before the Ray J tape leaks, but 427 out of its 444 pages
are made up of images taken after 2007. There is also a section in which the photographs are printed on black pages. This section is visible on the fore edge, head and tail of the book, and when we open to it, we find images that feel ~slightly~ more private than others. In many images, we don’t see Kim’s face; just her body or close-ups of her breasts. In a bit of text, Kardashian writes: “#WifeLife” and later explains ” I wasn’t intending to put these in the book but saw them online during the icloud hack. I’m not mad at them. lol They are taken with a blackberry and I don’t have icloud… it’s all a mystery!”
Kim plays with the role of intimacy in her image so well– the text and the nature of the image imply these were images intended for her husband, but she continues to share them with the public. The images are not more or less explicit than the others in the book, but it is the context and design that make it feel that way. Anticipating the now common flippant caption: “felt cute may delete later lol”. Including these images also calls into question whether the hack (or the initial sex tape leak) was choreographed in any way, and allows Kim to take back the narrative. Kardashian deeply understands that part of the allure of these images is the audience’s experience of voyeurism, and this narrative furthers the images’ power.
Most significantly, all three of these books are defined by the ways in which they display women’s power and agency in creating their own image. In Women with Cameras, a pair of friends pose together in a mirror with a yellow Kodak disposable camera with images of a pair of celebrities taped to the concrete wall. We are clearly in a dorm room or perhaps a summer camp bunk, a space where young women are in the process of understanding who they want to be.
Kim’s psychology can be inferred more casually, because she broadcasts and curates it on television and her social media. These media underpin her ultimate goals: to be a cultural icon, to be considered beautiful. Kim’s photography was an integrally important tool in allowing her to accomplish these goals. Initially, Kim’s fame was the result of the release of images over which she did not have full control. But her self-portraits, first on MySpace and then, inescapably, on Instagram, reclaimed to the owner the image of herself; Kim has in turn used that image to define her career.
There is a coyness to the incidental act of being caught in a mirror which can be alluring. For Maier, this form of happenstance was a way of engaging with her subjects by catching their reflections and allowing her own image serving as almost a signature. “We were here, and I made this photograph.”
Self-portraiture becomes a dialog with ourselves and our intended audience, but, importantly also the camera itself. There is an agency in seeing the camera. It disrupts the gaze and informs the viewer that the photographer made this image, of herself.
Lynne Tillman’s essay in Women with Cameras (Self Portraits) concludes: “[Collier] documents people’s incessant need to see themselves, over and over, and to be their own image-takers and keepers.” Vivian Maier and Kim Kardashian West in many ways exist as opposite poles, Collier’s work calls both to mind, in the sense that she seems to be saying that we need to see ourselves (over and over) in order to understand ourselves, regardless whether that need plays itself out in a private, public or liminal space. But does our perception change when we present our image towards an audience of friends and strangers?