Picturing Ourselves "Brilliantly using Walter Benjamin's theory of the photograph, Rugg reads the history of self-representations from Mark Twain to Benjamin himself through the double lens of the photographic record and the autobiography. The end result is a book which is hard to put down--as it provides a new way of seeing and reading both texts and images."--Sander L. Gilman
An excerpt from
Picturing Ourselves
Photography and Autobiography
by Linda Haverty Rugg

Published by the University of Chicago Press

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-9 of Picturing Ourselves by Linda Haverty Rugg, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 1997 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.


To see oneself (differently from in a mirror): on the scale of History, this action is
recent, the painted, drawn, or miniaturized portrait having been, until the spread
of Photography, a limited possession, intended moreover to advertise a social and
financial status--and in any case, a painted portrait, however close the
resemblance . . . is not a photograph. Odd that no one has thought of the
disturbance (to civilization) which this new action causes.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Over the past two decades an essential question has been debated among scholars of autobiography: can we "touch the world" in writing?1 Can an autobiographical text refer to a subject outside the text? Does a self create its autobiography, or does an autobiography create its self? A parallel and intimately related discussion explores the relationship of photography to the world. Are photographs evidence of the existence of things or people in the world? Or are they constructions, manipulable and manipulative, masquerading as fact? This book explores the intersection of these two debates--the point at which photographs enter the autobiographical act.2 What (or how) do photographs mean in the context of an autobiography? Do they come to the rescue of autobiographical referentiality through the presentation of the author's body in the world, or do they undermine the integrity of referentiality through multiple or posed presentations? Did the invention of photography transform the way we picture ourselves?

The nineteenth-century invention of photography and its proliferation did in some sense spawn a "disturbance to civilization" (as Barthes would have it), and part of my task in the following pages will be to examine the transformation of self-image and self-writing in the face of photographs of the self. But it may be more accurate to say that photographs, which can display many views and variant versions of the same person, simply supply a visual metaphor for the divided and multiple ("decentered") self, a self-image that gained momentum from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Freud and beyond. Photography did not create the disturbance; photographic technology, like other human inventions, offers an extension and realization of already-imagined images. At the same time, however, photographs as physical evidence re-anchor the subject in the physical world, insist on the verifiable presence of an embodied and solid individual. If, as practicing poststructuralists, we would like to discount photography's evidential power, we should remind ourselves of the small army of photographic selves that verify our status and agency in the world on passports, drivers' licenses, and so on.3

It is this double consciousness that informs the work of the autobiographers of my study: the awareness of the autobiographical self as decentered, multiple, fragmented, and divided against itself in the act of observing and being; and the simultaneous insistence on the presence of an integrated, authorial self, located in a body, a place, and a time. Photographs enter the autobiographical narrative to support both of these apparently opposing views; photography placed in conjunction with autobiographical texts helps to unpack the issue of reference in all its complexity.

It would have been possible (and rewarding) to write a book on the "naive" use of photographs as illustrations in popular autobiography, where simulacra of family albums for athletes, royalty, Hollywood figures, generals and politicians appear as a "natural" and expected supplement to the autobiographical text. This is a subject deserving serious attention, for it is precisely uninterrogated presentations of photography and autobiography that can work toward the most powerful support of unconscious ideological assumptions.4 But I decided instead to focus on four literary authors whose autobiographical texts and photographs express a consciousness of the problem of referring to the self in language and in image. These authors are themselves theoreticians (although not all of them would think of themselves as such) and they come to my aid with fascinating reflections on the presence of photography in their visualizations and articulations of selfhood.

strindberg An immediate and obvious objection can be raised about the lack of symmetry in my objects of study; in autobiography, the object and subject of the text are the same--the author writes his or her own life story. Photographs, on the other hand, most frequently interject a third party into the process of recording an image; the photographer and the photographed subject are usually not the same person. I can respond to this objection in several ways, and I do wish to consider it seriously, since it touches at the core of my arguments and my reasons for selecting these particular four authors for study. First, and most superficially, it does sometimes occur that individuals make photographs of themselves, and this act is, in and of itself, interesting to any scholar concerned with autobiography. One of the authors of this study, August Strindberg, worked on a textual and photographic record of himself throughout his life. Constantly retooling his philosophy and methodology, he took up the camera at various moments and pointed it at himself in order to create (as he thought) the "truest" possible image. His image of himself as self-photographer and photographed subject finds clear reflection in his textual self-image, as well.

Second, an individual can forge a photographic self-image through canny manipulation of photographers and the economic and cultural institutions surrounding the production and publication of photography, thus maintaining a kind of "authorship" of self-image. I was first inspired to study parallels between photographic and autobiographical self-imaging while studying the work of Mark Twain, whose staging of over 500 individual photographic self-images propelled him into the visual and cultural awareness of people throughout the world, allowing him to overcome through photography the limitations imposed on texts by difficulties of translation.

Taking another, more penetrating look at Strindberg and Twain uncovers a deeper layer of complexity in the act of self-representation, however. In both cases, the authors strove to achieve more perfect control of the their self-images through a direct control of the photographic process. Strindberg strictly limited the number of photographic portraits by other photographers, proclaiming that "[his] soul . . . came out better in [his] own photographs than in others" (Ahlström and Eklund 1961:182). For his part, Twain encouraged photographers, even inviting them into his bedroom, but he kept a fierce watch on the publication and distribution of his photographic image, threatening photographers with legal action when he felt they had overstepped their bounds. But what, precisely, are the bounds in this case? Who has final authority over images--the photographer or the photographed subject?

The English idiom "to take a photograph" begins to say something of the parasitic relationship between the photographer and the person or objects within the photographic frame. Photographers are said to "take" an image of a person precisely because we naturally assume at some level that images of us belong to us. It is not polite, for instance, to take a photograph of a stranger without asking permission. It would constitute a kind of betrayal to take a photograph of a friend secretly, blow it up to life-size, and post it around the community. Actual photographic practice, however, opens up the possibility that strangers will see our image in public spheres, perhaps in a newspaper photograph, or in a school yearbook, or hung as an advertisement in a photographer's studio, where the photographer owns our image. Images can represent the most intimate expression of ourselves--our body, the self normally exposed only to those whom we see and/or know--and images allow the escape of our private or guarded public sphere into the unguarded public.

My emphasis in the lines above on the photographer's intrusion into the process of creating and distributing photographic images of individuals would seem to highlight the distinction between autobiography (by definition, the product of one person), and photographic portraits (the product of both the photographed subject and the photographer). I would like to argue, however, that the loss of control over the body's image inherent in photographic portraits strikes a respondent chord in the autobiographer's consciousness of the loss of control inherent in writing and (more importantly) publishing an autobiography.

Autobiography is itself an exertion of control over self-image, for in writing an account of one's own life, one authorizes the life, claiming a kind of privilege for one's own account. Thus we have biographies designated as "authorized" in order to endow them with a kind of superior authenticity, but autobiography requires no such label. Every autobiography is an authorized account. This by no means establishes that every autobiography is a "true" account, but the aura of authenticity nevertheless surrounds the autobiographer's tale. Absolute control over any published material is, however, an illusion, and it can be plainly shown that autobiographers are at some level aware that they can only attempt to perpetuate that illusion. To name one instance, the practice of waiting to publish an autobiography until after the autobiographer and/or parties mentioned in the text are dead might be explained as intended to spare the feelings of the living, but another ready explanation is that a published text is a text open to interpretation and rebuttal, even unto lawsuits. The first edition of Mark Twain's autobiography appeared (by his own design) after his death, and he earmarked whole sections of his manuscript for delayed publication--his editors were in some cases to wait up to 100 years after his death.5 He thus managed to escape life with the last word on himself, though he clearly hoped to exercise control over the conversation concerning himself for another century after his departure.

Twain's case may seem extreme, but indeed he only gives full voice to the fear of all authors, a fear voiced eloquently by W.H. Auden in his elegy on the death of Yeats:

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
Auden's lines refer to the reading of Yeats's poetry, but he also identifies Yeats with Yeats's words--not just his poetry, but "he" is scattered among a hundred cities--and in the case of autobiographical writing, the identification between writer and text is underscored, explicit. In a sense, the moment at which one human being photographs another enacts and embodies the autobiographer's situation, and not only because the photographer can be imagined as a "reader" of the subject. The autobiographer, in writing of his or her own life, also stands apart from the self, tries to envision and read the self from a vantage distanced by the passage of time.

The photographic situation, then, offers the autobiographer a representational image for the autobiographical act of looking at oneself, as well as a metaphor for the intrusive act of reading and interpreting that takes place after the publication of the autobiography. The photographer in such a metaphorical scenario is merely a cipher, a representation of the Eye, which can be either the alienated "I" of the autobiographer or the eye of the other, the reader. There is an obvious danger in arguing that the photographer has no authorial role to play in the photographic process; photographers pose, frame, edit, develop, and otherwise manipulate the photographic subject and context in such a way that they must be counted as agents. But here it is useful to remember once again the double consciousness attendant at the reception of photographs.

While we know on one level that photographs are the products of human consciousness, they also can (have been, are, will) be taken as "natural" signs, the result of a wholly mechanical and objective process, in which the human holding the camera plays an incidental role in recording "truth." Our belief in this aspect of photography allows us to admit photographs as evidence in courts of law and persuades some that the spirits of the dead or heavenly emissaries can be captured on photographic film. In this reading of photographs it is possible to posit the metaphorical "Eye" mentioned above, an eye so close in character to that of the unknown and invisible reader, or the eye of the observing and narrating autobiographer, or the eye of the State or of God, that it achieves a transcendent and disembodied quality. It is an idea of such an "Eye" that allows me to propose a parallel where common sense dictates that there is none, a parallel between autobiographical texts produced by (apparently) single entities and images "produced" by two persons--a photographer and a photographed subject. I could have said all of this more simply if I had first suggested a parallel between the subject/object relationship within an autobiographical narrative and the subject/object relationship in the photographic situation, but in order to make that apparently easy equation, I had to do the harder work of explaining how a separate consciousness (the photographer) comes to stand for an impersonalized consciousness, a bit of (black) magic that occurs through a "naive" reading of photography.

Twain's obsessive production of self-image reveals an awareness of posturing and imposture worthy of the postmodern artist Cindy Sherman.


Mark Twain and August Strindberg struggle for the control of their experimental autobiographical projects with an intensity that reveals an anxiety about loss of control. Both produce hundreds and hundreds of pages, both are unable to provide synthesis or resolution for their autobiographical texts, both indicate their hope that after their deaths, their editors will somehow make sense of the mass/mess they have left behind. A similar bid for control reigns in their photographic self-imaging. Twain's obsessive production of self-image reveals an awareness of posturing and imposture worthy of the postmodern artist Cindy Sherman.6 He shares a postmodern anxiety and playfulness regarding images, as well, for unlike Strindberg, he was not concerned (in the production of his self-image, at any rate) with the search for truth. He did not believe that the truth (assuming it existed) could be located. He wanted to manufacture "truth," and he used photographs to help him do it. Both authors, however, were confronted with the plurality of selfhood and the need (both economic and psychological) to assert a singularity of selfhood for themselves. The difference between them arises from Strindberg's abiding (if anxious) faith that the fundamental self exists beneath its shifting surface, and Twain's conviction that it does not.

An essential uncertainty about the image-out-of-control and the problem of the all-seeing Eye provokes the first two authors of my study into a hyperproduction of images. While they differ in their understanding of the nature of photographic veracity and its potential role in the autobiographical process, they both attempt to harness the undeniable power of the photographic image for their own use in self-production. Another reaction entirely governs the second two authors of this study, and for that reason the book falls into two halves, the first concerned with the end of the nineteenth century, and the second with the developments that come to define the twentieth century: war and the rise and fall of totalitarianism.

Walter Benjamin and Christa Wolf, the last two authors of this study, lived a pivotal part of their lives at one of the greatest watersheds in twentieth-century history: Germany under National Socialism. Benjamin, a Jewish exile from Hitler's Germany, and Wolf, who spent her childhood under Hitler, both react against the dangerously objectifying power of photographs in their autobiographical narratives, which pointedly omit actual photographic images, but embrace photography as a metaphor for history and memory. Like Twain and Strindberg, Benjamin and Wolf acknowledge the power of the photographic medium, but they choose to exercise control through a conversion of photograph into text. In these instances, it is precisely the absence of real photographs and the use of the photographic metaphor that lead us to question the ideology of photography.

Walter Benjamin's theses on the philosophy of history and essays on photography have attracted significant scholarly interest, but his lyrical account of childhood, A Berlin Childhood around 1900, remains largely ignored, particularly by Anglophone scholars.7 I approach A Berlin Childhood as a testing ground for his theories of history and photography as they apply to his own experience, arguing that his photographic conception of history provides the impetus and structure for his text, while the absence of photographs or other clearly denotative signs of identity (his name, for instance) points up his situation as outsider within the totalitarian system. Christa Wolf's Patterns of Childhood ponders the close association between memory and photography nurtured in the twentieth century, as the narrator attempts to reconstruct her childhood by summoning mental images of photographs that were lost at the end of the war. The loss of her family's photograph album signifies a blind spot in their history and in the history of Germans generally, a spot which Wolf takes as her point of departure as she explores the ways in which she herself was constructed by National Socialism, using her text to reframe and recover her own self-image.

These four authors illustrate four possible approaches to the presence of photography in the making of autobiography. Strindberg photographs himself, Twain dictates to the photographer, Benjamin converts photography into theory and literature, and Wolf re-enters, reclaims, and rewrites her childhood memories through the photographic frame. The four authors come from three different national cultures, but despite the importance of each to those individual cultures, they also emerge from a rapidly expanding international culture, brought about in part through the agency of photography.

It would not be inappropriate to characterize Twain as the typical American positivist for his recognition of photography's market value, his decision to trademark his own image in order to make a profit from it, and his attempt to legislate and control the distribution of his image. But it is important at the same time to realize the cynicism behind the positivism; precisely because he knows so well how to manipulate images, he also must be aware of the slippage between photographic image and photographed subject. Strindberg was Twain's contemporary, and while not an American, he too understood the economic value of his photographic self-image. Paradoxically, the Swede shows himself to be more of a wide-eyed optimist than the American, claiming for photography a pure and supernatural representative power, though the photographs and autobiographical texts of his last years reveal the desperation behind his optimism. These two authors belong to the first generation of people whose lives from childhood on could be recorded in photographs, a fact that in some ways brings them in closer relation to one another than to their own parents. The admixture of exhilaration and suspicion apparent in their relation to their own photographic images bespeaks their cultural and historical position at the turn of the last century, as does particularly, I would say, their lifelong drive to produce more self-images.

The use of photographs to catalogue criminals and the insane had already begun in the nineteenth century, and the increasing threat posed to private space by the photograph was apparent from early on. But Benjamin's life (begun at the turn of the century) took shape under the threat of total state control of images, the passport photograph stamped with a "J," the propaganda films of the Olympic Games and the Nuremberg party rallies. I place Benjamin and Wolf beside Twain and Strindberg not because they stand in absolute contrast to the two earlier writers; rather, their twentieth-century experience of a state that controls even self-images appears to be the realization of nineteenth-century fears. The loss of self-governance implied by the uninhibited reproduction and distribution of one's photographic image by others exists already in the minds of both Twain and Strindberg--it is their solutions to the problem that differ from Benjamin's and Wolf's.

There are, of course, many others whose autobiographical work could be discussed in light of their interest in photography; Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Wright Morris, and Cindy Sherman spring immediately to mind. I will in fact deal with some of these artists, as well; but I wanted to focus on my four authors both for the historical and cultural contexts of their lives and work, and for the way I believe their similarities and dissimilarities point up both the historical and essential nature of photography. Although I take historical, cultural, and technological developments as key elements in the construction and understanding of both photography and selfhood, I do not necessarily see a purely linear development in attitudes toward photography and autobiography, nor do I intend to argue, as Barthes seems to do in the epigraph to this introduction, that the invention of photography necessarily provoked a cultural revolution. A number of revolutions were underway at the time of photography's invention, and the medium simply offered a new basis for reading and writing and experiencing the world. Photography is constructed as it constructs. Further, "naive" and "sophisticated" readings of photography and autobiography coexist, not only during the same historical period, but often in the same individual. It seems to me that large conceptual issues were brought into play from the moment of autobiography's contact with photography, and that these issues remain in force.

If, as I have argued above, photographs and autobiographies work together as signs to tell us something about the self's desire for self-determination, it will also be necessary to explore the ways in which these images and texts relate to the body that both constructs and is constructed by them. To what or whom do autobiographies and photographs refer? How does a text or an image touch the world? How does the introduction of photographs and/or the photographic metaphor into autobiographical texts complicate autobiographical reference?

Photo caption: August Strindberg Self-Portrait (Gersau, 1886). Courtesy Strindberg Museum, Stockholm.


  1. I borrow this phrase from the title of Paul John Eakin's Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Eakin's book provided inspiration for my conviction that referentiality is the primary common concern of textual and photographic autobiography.
  2. I owe the expression "autobiographical act" to Elizabeth Bruss and her book on autobiography, Autobiographical Acts.
  3. A scene in the film The Killing Fields poignantly illustrates my point. An international group of journalists, awaiting rescue evacuation from a dangerously embattled Cambodia, attempts to forge a passport for a Cambodian translator whose life will be endangered if he remains behind. They must create a photograph of him for the passport, but they lack the necessary chemicals in the compound to which they are confined. They try several times, but without the proper chemicals, the image refuses to fix. The cinematic image of the false photograph, which insistently fades to white, seems a reflection of the translator's situation. Without this image, he is nothing, he is dead. Of course, in this instance the passport is a faked document; it does not honestly represent the identity of the translator. Thus we have a situation that reflects perfectly the ambiguous nature of photography--the power to lie, the power to convince. In Swedish, the word for identification card is legitimation; and so it is in practice, as we are rendered legitimate by signature and photograph.
  4. John Berger eloquently formulates the need to look analytically at photographs, especially those not intended for analysis.
  5. Twain's insistence on delayed publication was probably a half-serious joke; his claim was that the material was too inflammatory from a moral perspective to be released to an unenlightened public. In fact, the delayed publication of his work could have been meant as a patrimony for his surviving daughter. Nevertheless, Twain's kind of playful reticence indicates an underlying suspicion that he will be misunderstood by his contemporaries, and he thus prefers to wait for an audience with sentiments more sympathetic to his -- in other words, an audience more of his own mind.
  6. I follow the lead of Susan Gillman with my use of the word imposture in connection with Twain's work. She and Maria Ornella Marotti also provide a model in their placement of Twain among modern authors.
  7. One reason for the silence among English-speaking scholars on the subject of A Berlin Childhood is that the English translation has not yet been published.

Linda Haverty Rugg
Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography
(c) 1997, 280 pages, 40 halftones, 5 line drawings
Cloth $65.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-73146-9
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-73147-6

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