Droste Self-Portraits

One day a while back I happened to buy a black and white photography magazine on a whim. The magazine was the July 2016 volume of Black + White Photography and in it there was an article called: A Modern Eye on some of the work of Dora Maurer. The work on show immediately caught my eye and I have come back to it a few times because it really captured my imagination. Seven Twists I-VI (1979) grasped my attention for the reason that initially it was quite striking to look at because of the optical illusion.

Seven Twists I-VI (1979) - Dora Maurer
Seven Twists I-VI (1979) – Dora Maurer

Afterwards I began to appreciate the organic qualities the photographs possessed. By this I meant there were subtle imperfections to the photographs-in-photographs which rendered the illusion as authentic and natural. As well as this these subtle imperfections also had a romantic appeal to them in my opinion – if everything had been lined up absolutely accurately the photographs would have appeared flat and utilitarian.

The illusion itself was a variation on the Droste effect but one that twisted as the photos were taken, printed and then photographed again inside a new self-portrait. I particularly liked the ‘blank canvas’ or photograph as the starting base for the work. I could imagine it would be possible to start using a self-portrait as the initial photograph instead but this approach for me suggested that the work was quite spontaneous and perhaps the illusion wouldn’t have been as strong without the blank photograph.

I decided I would try to incorporate this touch (the blank canvas starting point) which eliminating other touches (like the twisting effect) in my own Droste self-portrait. Because I appreciated the subtle imperfections of Maurer’s work, I wanted to make this a feature of my work. I did this by the inclusion of the remote cord from my hand to the camera as well as alternating the hand holding the canvas in each picture. This kind of attention to detail I was learning could make or break a photograph. Unlike Maurer, I tried to pay close attention to how the photographs-in-photographs ‘lined up’ – both inside each other and with the photographic frame. Like Maurer, I chose the black and white medium to make the illusion stronger and to remove a sense of time to disorient the viewer (as the sense of time was now only from each iteration of the photograph). Lastly I elected to create the Droste effect for the photo-in-photo 3 times as then the illusion was quite apparent but didn’t overwhelm the self-portrait.

Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)

Although I wouldn’t strictly put this photograph or set of photographs in the genre of documentary it still included documentary elements, which is why I’ve included it as a post for my documentary course. Documentary elements could include the changing of my appearance from photograph to photograph-in-photograph. It could also raise documentary questions from photograph to photograph-in-photograph like permanence (or impermanence) of the photographic medium and what is true and untrue about this photograph or set of photographs? For example some parts are seemingly consistent from photograph to photograph-in-photograph but at the same time the photographs appear within each other. Also details like the hands alternating from side to side as the photographs become photographs in photographs. Therefore perhaps it proves that photographs are indexical to reality but at the same time can’t always be relied on as documents.

Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)

Incidentally I felt my self-portrait worked slightly better cropped in but I have included both the cropped and uncropped versions. The reason I felt it worked slightly better cropped in was that the viewer was able to concentrate on the illusion more and could be less distracted by other parts of the image. Also the alternating hands were more obvious in this version.


Maurer, D. (1979) Seven Twists I-VI. In. A Modern Eye. (2016). Black + White Photography, (191), pp.40-43.

Two Levels to Subjectivity?

Perhaps I have been confusing for the same thing what I perceive as the two ways a photograph can be subjective…

  • the method the subject is approached with
  • how the subject is photographed
I’ll start with the way the subject is approached. For a long time up until recently, I have simply photographed the first thing that has captured my attention. If I liked the resultant photograph I have kept that subject or type of subject in my mind for later reference. In retrospect this type of shooting does seem fairly mindless, although not if I was to produce a visual diary. A visual diary is one idea that has sprung to mind when looking back at my original approach. Another idea is basically the opposite in my mind where I have started to develop a preconceived plan of what I would like to photograph and how. This lends itself to landscape photography in particular I feel (where the photography is much more deliberate) although I have had a feeling that it could be applied to documentary too. These kind of approaches (maps or other systematic forays into the world around us with a camera) are usually biased in some way but peculiarly for me are less biased than wandering around photographing the first thing we see with a camera. I would feel this is the case because of the way our minds work (subconsciously) where with simply wandering there is always a start point and our minds are inevitably affected by aesthetic tastes as we walk around. By approaching the way the subject is photographed in a more biased way beforehand this is less true in my experience as your hand is forced somewhat, so to speak, as to what type of photographs you take. As a consequence the photographs result in being less biased and more room is left for the photographer to be subjective. This is both in the manner you see fit to instigate the photographing process and then the actual photographing process.
This leads me onto the next level of subjectivity – how the subject is photographed. For me this is the more obvious of the two. It includes photography’s history with objectivity (essentially the opposite to subjectivity) where the photograph is taken as literally as possible and how photographers and indeed viewers started to move away from this concept. This was due to the realisation that however the photograph was taken, it would invariably be subjective because it is after all an interpretation of a given scene from which the photographer has selected a framing. Subjectivity consists of any clue or marking that points to the photograph being taken by that individual. Some examples include intentional subject movement, use of shallow depth of field, low camera angles, tight framing and intimate lighting. It is possible to cancel out a lot of these subjective cues through objective, repetitive framing from a central, level viewpoint with inanimate lighting. However, the frame still remains chosen by the photographer and could be seen as an indication of a collective frame of mind by a movement of photographers instead. Therefore on the one hand there are the individual photographers who work subjectively (from which various subjective groups have been formed) to another subjective group of photographers; namely those who photograph objectively.
From these assertions I could observe four alternative ways in which I could potentially move forwards with my photography. These consisted of:
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
Instead of ‘just’ photographing the first thing I saw, I could produce a more objective methodology, possibly where I made an effort to start more systematically photographing a project or a place. As well as this I could start to produce a visual diary. However, whether I chose to photograph these with objective tendencies or subjectively is another matter (one that is entirely subjective!).