Of the two of us, it’s I, due to my art history degree, that is more likely to tiptoe around a pile of bricks at the Tate Modern and believe the sign saying that it is the greatest work of art of all times. So, when I read out from the Discovery Season prospectus that a small wooden structure crowned by a forest of garish signs is known by the grand name ‘The Pavilion‘, designed by an award-winning artist Morag Myerscough and is supposed to ‘create an upbeat and stimulating surrounding for the residents’, John just looked at me with incredulity and said: ‘What? That shed?’ (He is obviously so not into punk rock design…)

Nevertheless, ‘the shed’ was designed to perform a serious duty of housing a rolling programme of creative residences that would encourage visitors to discover something new in the Library of Birmingham.

On 6-8 September the Pavilion opened its space for Brian Homer and Timm Sonnenschein’s Self Portrait Birmingham project. I am always curious of all things photographic, so we went to the library to check it out! We saw hundreds queuing to take their own picture, be shown on a big Welcome Screen at the library foyer and bring home a digital print. Everywhere was a sense of excitement and anticipation, and the sign up process was easy enough even for children.

Self Portrait Birmingham at the Library of Birmingham
People queueing to take their own picture at Self Portrait Birmingham in the LoB
Self Portrait Birmingham banner
A Self Portrait Banner inviting people to sign up for the project
Library of Birmingham - young boys filling the forms to take  part in the Self Portrait project
Young boys filling the forms to take part in the Self Portrait Birmingham

I took some photographs of what was happening behind the scenes. A family of four against a plain white backdrop. Two large Elinchrom softboxes. A tripod-mounted digital camera. A long shutter cable release. A photographic attendant relinquishing her role of directing people how to behave in front of the camera. The family is taking charge how and when their image is taken.

Behind the scenes - a family of four taking part in Self Portrait Birmingham in the Pavilion
A family of four taking part in Self Portrait Birmingham in the Pavilion

A wider view reveals more details how the project operates. We see parts of Timm as he adjusts focus and makes sure the whole  family fits in the viewfinder top to toe – last minute technicalities, but something that has to be supervised. A group of young boys waiting for their print from the previous session, one kid talking excitedly on the phone. A monitor to adjust the exposure a bit and to choose the final image to print. A friendly staff member picking up a ready print from the digital printer tray.

Library of Birmingham - behind the scenes view of the Self Portrait project session in the Pavillion
Behind the scenes view of the Self Portrait project studio session in the Pavilion

1000 self potraits resulting from the sessions around the city commissioned by the Library of Birmingham are displayed in a specially designed dynamic presentation shaped as you guess what and named the Digital Gallery.

Digital Gallery at the Library of Birmingham featuring images from the Self Portrait Birmingham project
Digital Gallery at the Library of Birmingham featuring images from the Self Portrait Birmingham project
Library visitors viewing the Self Portrait Birmingham display
Library visitors viewing the Self Portrait Birmingham display
Library of Birmingham - a view on the Self Portrait display from the Upper Lending Terrace
A view from the Upper Lending Terrace

Every 5 minutes one collage of bubbly optimistic people is followed by another. Every man is self-confident. Every couple is in love. Every family is united. Every child is happy… Life is not a series of upbeat advertising moments, we all know, but this is the glossed over way that the 1000 Brummies imaged themselves.

Is it the subconscious influence of the white background and residual upbeat energy of the infamous Venture Portraits?

Or the lingering intentions of the seminal 1979 Handsworth Self-Portrait, the update of which was Self Portrait Birmingham? Then some 500 photographs were taken – they showed residents of Handsworth trying to self-affirm photographically their worth as people, as human beings, despite the location and the circumstances in which they lived.

Or the fact that with the advent of digital imaging people are photographed much more often and they are less awkward and more confident  in front of the camera? Everyone has taken a ubiquitous self snapshot of ‘me and my friend’ with a mobile phone.

Or are we just used to ‘put our best leg forward’, shut our worries away and present a micro-utopian side of our lives to the camera? The world of never-ending sunshine…

Or is it the images chosen by the project curators?

As I was writing John threw in a couple of his own thoughts on the matter. He thinks that in every arena of life, personal, as in dating, or corporate, image is everything now. We’ve become like commodities. Blemishes are banished. Marketing ourselves through LinkedIn and Facebook photo is matter-of-fact. Also digital technology and online presence drives this seamless vanity world of ‘our life’. Do you agree with him?

Anyway, Self Portrait Birmingham has moved so much away from its Russian predecessor that inspired Brian Homer in the first place. Oh yes, there is a Russian, or more accurately, Soviet connection to the project. In 1976 an American photographer David Attie undertook a ‘Russian Self-Portrait’ project as a part of the cultural exchange programme in Kiev (which is in Ukraine) and published an influential book about it.

Attie accompanied an exhibition of American photographers travelling to the Eastern block and offered a makeshift photo studio allowing Soviet visitors, military and civilian, grown up and children to take their own portrait. There was a plain background, a huge mirror to self-control poses and gestures, and a cable release that, in the photographer’s own words, ‘was held as if a foreign object, people looked away from the camera, at the lights, or themselves in mirrors positioned so they could see what the camera was recording.’

Some images were head and shoulders only, some full length, in some parts of photographic equipment were visible – different angles were allowed, and the body of Attie’s work seems more raw and immediate at the same time. The language barrier precluded an deliberate direction, and subjects decided for themselves whether to think that the photograph of them was taken just a factual recording for perpetuity  or to construct, however awkwardly, their likeness for the consumption by American people.

Was is a more authentic response to cameras and technology, and a record of a true unglossed participatory process than its 2013 Birmingham counterpart? If so, the photographer’s intervention of the self-imaging process (i.e. full body length framing in most of the photographs, more intense gaze engagement with the lens etc.) is greater than we are led to believe when Self Portrait Birmingham is described in print.

Different culture, different country, different time…

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