Different Girls: performances of adolescence in contemporary photographic portraits.
Doctoral thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Abstract or Description
This study considers five contemporary women artists whose work focuses on the adolescent model. Framed by the trend for large-scale colour photography, the depiction of adolescence was a recurring theme in the mid- to late-1990s. The artists – Sarah Jones, Anna Gaskell, Collier Schorr, Hellen van Meene and Amy Adler – are examined through their engagement with the history of the photographic portrait, with the room-sized space in front of the camera theorised as a performance space in which the identifications of the photographer, model and viewer are staged. Adolescence as a cultural and psychic identity is explored through psychoanalytic concepts of hysteria, sibling relations and narcissism, examining the performances of adolescence as disrupting heteronormative presentations of female identity and sexuality. The ‘queerness’ of adolescence and the potential this allows in the construction of alternative viewing positions and identifications is a concern that runs throughout the study.
In each chapter the contemporary work is considered alongside examples from the history of the photographic portrait. The conventions of studio portraiture developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century through the commercial carte-de-visite photograph, experimental amateur photography and scientific applications of photography form key points of dialogue with these contemporary stagings. The figure of the adolescent girl focuses attention on narratives of anxiety around uncontrollable sexuality, one that can be seen in the work of artists, writers, psychoanalysts and filmmakers, from the favourite hysteric at the Salpêtrière, Augustine, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Broader issues around the photographic portrait are also considered in relation to these performances: the ambiguous presence of the model as a subject or object; the effect of repetition and ideas of performativity on the portrait’s traditional aim to present an individual subjectivity; and dialogues with postmodern ideas of appropriation and authorship in the quotations from historical sources. By considering this work primarily through a history of the photographic portrait, the depiction of the adolescent model can be contextualised as part of an ongoing critical engagement with the conventions of presenting a performance for the camera.
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