Bill Sullivan, Self Portraits With Mirrors

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by SUN Editions (here). French fold soft cover cover with clear mylar slipcover, 12×9.16 inches, 120 pages, with 35 black and white reproductions. In an edition of 100 copies. Design by the artist. (Cover, spread, and detail shots below.)

Also available in a special edition with a signed and numbered print mounted inside the book.

Comments/Context: Bill Sullivan will likely forgive us some momentary confusion with the title of his photobook Self Portraits with Mirrors. With no image on the cover to guide us, we might reasonably assume that we would find photographs of the artist himself inside, taken with the aid of mirrors. But that’s not exactly what appears; instead, there are a series of appropriated images of young women taking photographs of themselves in mirrors, which Sullivan then displayed on LCD monitors and rephotographed. So perhaps the title, with a bit of misdirection, is actually literal – the photobook is indeed a compendium of self portraits with mirrors, just not the artist’s. Unless of course, we consider his rephotographed images to be indirectly reflecting Sullivan (and his gaze), in which case the title functions perfectly. That such nested and contradictory interpretations could be drawn out of some simple wordplay tells us something about the layered complexities embedded in this project.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now often date the starting point of the genre of the “selfie” to the first release of the iPhone in 2007. But camera technology had been included in various mobile phones in the years prior, particularly in the then popular Motorola V220 flip phone (and yes, that’s the old Motorola logo on the cover the photobook). Sullivan’s series goes back to 2003 and the images made with that early cameraphone, in a sense, exploring the origin story of the modern selfie. That Sullivan found plenty of images made with that specific camera floating around on the Internet in 2008 when he made his appropriations, and that there were enough self portraits in bathroom and bedroom mirrors (among all the pictures taken) to provide the raw material for his project says something about the inherent popularity of such image making at the time when the technology was still very much in its infancy. And once high quality integrated cameras became more widely available, the genre expanded (or exploded).

Once we start looking at the self portraits of these young women, there’s a lot to unpack. One of the basic tenets of the selfie is that it theoretically represents our own look at ourselves. But the selfie quickly evolved into a variety of types and uses, from the casual face snapshot to communicate momentary mood to the more staged and performative setup, where identity isn’t captured in the wild, it’s painstakingly constructed and manipulated for particular effect.

In many ways, the images here offer a jumble of concurrent interpretations. They were initially private (or at least intended to be so), and the blinding flash or interrupting camera offers some amount of anonymity, but the pictures later became public (also perhaps intentionally). They show us women gazing at themselves in nude or partially nude poses, and so in some sense might represent a version of empowerment or body positivity, but the gaze they have chosen to employ mimics that of the leering male gaze, where the subject is objectified. And so we assume that these pictures were deliberately crafted (or performed) to induce attention, attraction, or seduction, and everyone involved, both viewer and viewed, knows it.

When Sullivan appropriates the images, several more layers of mediation take place. Sullivan was obviously not the intended recipient of these images, and so is an outsider to the original exchange of intimacy. That distance (across physical space as well as years of time) adds a sense of voyeurism (and almost nostalgia now a decade further on), which is then amplified by the viewing of the images on computer monitors. The LCD screens break the images up into grids of pixels, which Sullivan smartly uses to further veil, distort, degrade, and abstract the images. When he’s finished with his rephotography exercise, most have dissolved into textural fields of tiny squares, stripes, or moiré patterns, the black and white tonalities flared, pixelated, and flattened.

The resulting artworks become something akin to faint echoes, each image recognizable but approximated, while still being freighted with a heady mix of contradictory impulses. The photographs now have both depth and tactile frontal surface, the interrupting grids pushing the images back into a kind of gauzy memory, where what was once electrically immediate becomes almost inconclusive, the intervening iterations having softened the original charge. (Corinne Vionnet has used a similar approach to unravel the symbolic power of the American flag, her series of rephotographs turning the familiar stars and stripes into an evolving wash of visual distortion (review here)).

It’s important to acknowledge that Sullivan’s technique is quite different from blurring (of the kind Thomas Ruff has applied to various pornographic nudes); that effect creates aloof impersonal distance, while this makes Sullivan physically present and involved, as though we are sitting right with him in front of the screen as he makes his photographs. As such, his works find connection with the obsessive amateur rephotographers of late night TV, the act of image-making creating personal reverberations through to the original subject matter.

The design of Self Portraits with Mirrors leans heavily on the motifs of outdated technology. The font choice throughout the book is a blocky all capitals letter style reminiscent of the kind found on camera displays or time stamps. The book begins with a series of blue pages that replicate generic titles and date stamps, rooting us in the idea of the raw electronic material, before we actually get to Sullivan’s rephotographed works. Sullivan’s images are then seen one to a spread, with a single number (in varying shades of grey) on the left hand page as a counter – each page flip adds another, until we return to a series of blue pages at the end. While the book itself is generously sized, it’s a sparse design, with a deliberate techno-throwback feel.

My initial instinct was that a male photographer working with dated nude selfies would either be dully predictable or vaguely misogynistic, but Self Portraits with Mirrors turns out to be much more complex and subtle than I had expected. Given all the mediation taking place, these works become satisfyingly uncertain, even squirrelly –  settling on one dominant interpretation of what we’re being shown becomes nearly impossible. When placed in the context of the long arm of art history, and in particular that of the photographic female nude, Sullivan’s works mark an intriguing pivot point, where the polarities of agency and gaze start to shift and shimmer.

Collector’s POV: Bill Sullivan does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    Excellent review Olga on Bill’s book. Now I understand it! ️

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