On Reflection: A Mystery Photographer’s Strangely Sensual Selfies from 1966 Come to Light
By: Charlotte Jansen
A man takes a picture of himself: he stands proudly, arms behind his back, head turned towards the camera, mouth slightly open. The lines of his body are soft, in contrast to the rigid angles of the architecture and brickwork in the backdrop. He is wearing a women’s g-string, frilled at the crotch, flip flops, and sunglasses.
All that is known about this unusual photograph – one of a series of 28 self-portraits in which the anonymous model/photographer dons an array of women’s underwear and swimwear, accessoried at times with sunglasses, and socks worn with loafers or beaten-up sneakers, assuming poses that are sometimes banal, sometimes vulnerable, and hardly conventionally erotic – is that they were taken in November, 1966.
The reason this unidentified photographer took this series of pictures of himself – and for whom – remains a mystery. Was this a private performance for the camera, or one that was intended to be seen, an erotic gift for a lover, or a secret experiment, a one-off flirtation with cross-dressing? Were they intended to be seen? It’s all part of their strange sensuality.
Five decades on, these enigmatic photographs are now in public, hanging on the walls of Blum & Poe gallery in Los Angeles, thanks to Jason Brinkerhoff, an artist who has worked extensively in recent years with outsider photography, carefully sourcing anonymous archives and elevating images that might not have been considered art – even by their creators.
’The thing that struck me most was the ambiguity of the pictures, I still can’t really understand what is going on or why this guy made these pictures,’ Brinkerhoff explains. ’They’re strange and masculine and I personally don’t read them as homoerotic although many people do. He seems a bit of loner to me, acting out on the rooftop. There’s a lot of ego in the pictures. When I first saw them they reminded me immediately of Martin Kippenberger – his antics – the giant self-portrait of him in his underwear.’
The closest we get to this mystery man is in a picture shot at near range, in which he reclines in barely-there underwear, eyes narrowed and gazing vaguely towards his own lens, hair swept back. The allure of these 50-year-old pictures is in this paradoxical tension, sharing these intimate moments with a complete stranger.