'Women with Cameras' at Mia reflects on selfies from a pre-Instagram era

Courtesy of the artist; Anton Kern Gallery, New York; Galerie Neu, Berlin; The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles © Anne Collier.

Courtesy of the artist; Anton Kern Gallery, New York; Galerie Neu, Berlin; The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles © Anne Collier. Anne Collier, Selected slide from Women with Cameras (Self Portrait), 2017, 35mm slides, 35mm slide projector, pedestal stand, and base, dimensions variable.

Before selfies, there were self-portraits, and women took them in secret.

Anne Collier: Women with Cameras (Self Portrait)

Minneapolis Institute of Art

Photographer Anne Collier has amassed a diverse collection of such self-portraits, found at flea markets, thrift stores, estate sales, and on eBay. She will exhibit 80 of them in slideshow form for her exhibition "Women with Cameras," opening Thursday at Mia. Dating from the 1970s to the early 2000s, these images reveal the gritty, filter-free perspective with which women saw themselves pre-social media.

Collier is known for her still-life photography examining issues like pop culture, consumerism, and feminism. She spoke to City Pages from New York, where she is now based.

City Pages: How has the digital age changed the way we take self-portraits?

Anne Collier: I think it’s just totally transformed something that would be automatically private. It’s kind of embarrassing taking photographs of yourself. It’s a weird activity. You might be doing it for different reasons, obviously, but it’s this slightly narcissistic way of creating something about your identity. You can kind of control the outcome, which is kind of a narcissistic thing. Then, all of a sudden, it’s just natural and normal for everyone to be doing it constantly. It’s just bizarre. I think that’s the main difference: Something that was once 100 percent private is now 100 percent public. I’m not sure there’s been a lot of discussion around that.

CP: How do you feel about the motivation for women to take self-portraits in the past versus in the present? Was this formerly a private act that has now become a form of exhibitionism?

AC: I don’t know if I would put it that way. I think it’s a form of empowerment for anybody, male or female, because you’re doing something and you’re controlling the outcome and it’s an opportunity for you to explore the ideas of self and identity. I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between the motivation for doing it. It’s just weird that you have it on your Instagram feed now, right?

CP: It’s weird. Definitely.

AC: I don’t have Instagram. I’m like a dinosaur. I don’t really do social media because I feel like everything I need to talk about, I talk about formally in my work. It is an interesting phenomenon, that shift.

CP: The press release for this show says these images are “steeped in a deep sense of loneliness.” Does that ring true to you? Is the act of self-portraiture a lonely one?

AC: [Laughs] I think some of these seem lonely, yeah. From the lady in her bathrobe who must be in her 70s or 60s taking a picture of herself in the bathroom mirror to people trying to take pictures of themselves in lingerie, there is a kind of loneliness, I guess. Maybe the act of doing a project like taking photos of yourself or dressing up for photos is a way to fill in the loneliness... You’re making a physical record of something that proves that you’re there. I always find any photography, going out and taking photos, is lonely. There’s something melancholic about the whole thing.

CP: How does nudity factor into this group of work?

AC: There isn’t that much nudity in this work. I think there’s a lot more nudity in men taking pictures of women. There’s a little bit of suggestiveness in some of these photos, as if they would be taking them for a boyfriend, but there’s no nudity. If there are those kinds of photographs, there’s lingerie or something like that. Most of the images in this are a lot more confusing as to what the purpose for taking them was. In a lot of them, their faces are covered with the flash in the mirror. There’s all these technical problems with the old-school selfies in mirrors, because it’s complicated. I think my favorite thing about this is that it’s hard to know what you’re looking at sometimes and it’s hard to understand exactly the point.

CP: You often incorporate pop culture into your work. Are there any pop culture references in this show?

AC: I think the pop culture reference in this show is kind of generalized. There will be pop culture references as in: Everything kind of dates itself. What people are wearing, everyone’s furniture, all the locations, the cars. There are posters on people’s walls. I think that’s all the stuff that roots itself in – I wouldn’t even say “pop culture” – but of the culture of that time.

CP: What gets lost in self-portraits – artistically or in terms of quality – with the move from 35mm film to digital images?

AC: I think it can be equally artistic. I think you’re making different kinds of decisions. It’s also more expensive to do film, so you’re taking less photos, you’re printing less photos. I think the decision-making and what’s at stake is a little bit different, but I don’t think it’s less artistic.


"Anne Collier: Women with Cameras”
Minneapolis Institute of Art
September 7 through December 17
Admission is free.

There will be a conversation with the artist in the Pillsbury Auditorium at Mia at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, September 7. Tickets are $10 ($5 for members).