I’ll Be Your Mirror

Lets talk about reflection. More specifically lets talk about the use of mirrors in photography, not just for the purpose of a self portrait but for the purpose of extending narrative and distorting perception.

Lee Friedlander in Louisiana. Courtesy of NOMA
Lee Friedlander in Louisiana. Courtesy of NOMA.

Some photographers are drawn to the mirror as a moth to a flame. Lee Freidlander springs immediately to mind, the master of the car wing mirror, as does Saul Leiter, the genius of the shop window mirror. Duane Michels also likes a mirror, as much as street photographers see the creative possibilities of a shiny, reflective, surface. But we are not talking about glass and steel here, I’m focused on mirrors.

Duane Michals, Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty, 1998. Sequence of six gelatin silver prints with hand applied text. © Duane Michals. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York
Duane Michals, Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty, 1998. Sequence of six gelatin silver prints with hand applied text. © Duane Michals. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

One of the most photographed and famous mirrors is the one that belonged to the artist Francis Bacon and hung in his South Kensington studio. Few photographers sent to that cluttered and claustrophobic space could resist the allure of the paint splattered mirror, when photographing Bacon. Jane Bown, Peter Stark, John Hedgecoe, Jorge Lewinski, Francis Goodman, Carlos Friere, Michael Pergolani and Michael Holtz were all drawn towards Bacon’s circular mirror when photographing the artist.

The mirror offers creative opportunity to disrupt the viewers understanding of the image, it takes us on a journey. A journey that opens new perspectives to the space in which the photograph is being taken.

Francis Bacon in his studio in 1973 in front of his circular mirror. Peter Stark

It is this sense of altered perspective that makes the use of the mirror so appealing to photographers. The idea that the two dimensional image can take on the characteristics of the three dimensional space. The opportunity to extend the narrative possibilities beyond what is in front of the camera to what is behind, beside and beyond.

The mirror does not always have to be found or a matter of coincidence. Guillaume Amat’s 2016 Open Fields project sees the photographer placing a mirrored stand in various landscapes, to reflect the opposing environment back within the image to create a double interpretation of the surrounding scene. Amat lives and works in Paris where he focuses on long-term photographic narratives that exist in a space between documentary and poetry. The mirror is his narrative tool.

Sandra and Mirror, Time Square, New York for Vogue, 1962. William Klein

William Klein worked with a mirror in a similar way decades earlier. Working with mirrors is not new, even if the associated narratives attached to images created through a similar practice place work not as commissioned fashion images but as contemporary art practice.

Lin Yung Cheng, aka 3cm, bends reality within his mirrored portraits and describes his relationship with the mirror like this, “A mirror is an extension of reality that allows the body to enter another body and be twisted and rebuilt. Through reading, the imagination and the emergence of poetry/words are combined with my life experience, which leads to the creation of my works.” That connection between the reflective surface and storytelling once again at the forefront of the photographer’s creative intention.

The mirror is a physical aid to a photographers creativity, a reflecting portal that opens up the possibility of multiple narratives and theoretical interpretations of what a reflection can mean. 

The relationship between the camera and the mirror was commented on by Friedlander “The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a twisted tongue.” It is this playing with truth that allows the photographer to dance with ideas of poetry and surrealistic storytelling within the captured image. The camera like the mirror allows for distorted interpretation.

But of course the principal use of the mirror by photographers is in the creation of the self-portrait. Friedlander, again, is a master exponent of the mirror in this context but so also is Vivian Maier. Both of these photographers repeatedly experimented with both the mirror and the self portrait but there are few photographers who have not seen the mirror as an appealing option when needing to photograph themselves. 

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier. Copyright The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.

It was Lou Reed who suggested that he was willing to accept the role as someone else’s mirror – in his case he was speaking to fellow Velvet Underground singer Nico – he stated that “When you think the night has seen your mind, That inside you’re twisted and unkind, Let me stand to show that you are blind, Please put down your hands, ‘Cause I see you”. Again the word twisted appears. Friedlander comments on the mirrors ability to twist believed reality, while Reed believes in it’s ability to reveal the hidden twisted reality.

Either way the importance of the mirror to the writer can be traced back to the earliest fairy tales as a place of revelation and conscience. Just think of the Queen in Snow White. Photography has adopted the mirror’s power to provide an alternative universe.

Isabella and Dove and Mirrors, Paris for Vogue,1963. William Klein

Again Klein identified this narrative opportunity in his 1963 images for Vogue magazine, creating an endless journey of repetition and fractured reality closer in aesthetic to the cubist and futurist painters of the early 20th Century than this of a monthly fashion magazine.

The mirror is the photographic gift that keeps on giving and one that for many years has been at the very centre of photographic capture. It’s use as a creative tool has been intrinsic to the medium and although in future years it may no longer be part of the camera itself, their can be little doubt that it will retain its fascination to photographers looking to evolve, extend and define their creative practice.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.


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