Elina Brotherus: Where the Mirror is a Window

Le nez de Monsieur Cheval - Elina Brotherus 1999

Le nez de Monsieur Cheval – Elina Brotherus 1999

In the context of further exploring the notion of photographs as mirrors, the course notes suggest a viewing of a video of Elina Brotherus talking to OCA students in 2015 (1).

In this forty minute film the multi award winning  artist photographer discusses her career and talks very specifically about a small number of photographs that on display in the room.

On face value much of her work fits into the criteria described by John Szarkowski when describing mirrors (here); her early work is primarily autobiographical and therefore apparently subjective, much of her work strongly reflects her emotional state at the time of taking the photographs so could be said to be reflective, and although it is straight as opposed to manipulated in terms of post production intervention it is staged, a fabricated reality that expresses her view of the world rather than documenting it and in several of her series she expires abstraction.  However, after looking more closely at her motivations and intents I believe her photographs are better described as windows rather than mirrors.

The first clue that eventually led me this conclusion was from her her own words: in 2000 she wrote “Where self-portraits are windows into myself, landscapes are windows opening outward from me.” Considering this comment in the context of her other writing and the views of a number of critics I began to realise that she has the ability to become an objective observer, and of course photographer, of herself and her emotions, she plays the role of a documentarist in parallel with placing herself inside the frame. In other words, rather the photograph being a mirror of her state of mind it becomes a window opening onto her physical presence and by seeing her figure as part of her staged set it becomes a window into her thoughts.

Self Portraits with a Dancer II - Elina Brotherus 1998

Self Portraits with a Dancer II – Elina Brotherus 1998

Based on reviewing the work on her website (3) her early photographs might be best described as straight autobiographical; Self Portraits and Other Early Works shows a starting point of very factual photographs of her with others, dancers and teachers but that begins to evolve into more expressive pictures of her in bed with a mannequin, probably a crash test dummy, that may be an exploration of relationships or lack thereof.

The photographs of her as, and with a dancer, and I am assuming that her multitude of talents don’t extend to the performing arts, reminded me of a comment by Laura Cummings in regard to Gustave Courbet who was a prolific nineteenth century self portrait painter and who “painted himself as a cellist, although he couldn’t play a note….. as a Byronic lover” (4 – p.195) and as a sculpture which he also never was. Cummings uses Courbet as the basis of a debate into whether the self portrait artist always has a tendency towards narcissism or whether “to stare at oneself for professional purposes” (4 – p.197) is to avoid being labelled self possessed. We might also debate whether self awareness, which Brotherus possesses in spades and which is perceived as a good trait in an artist, is very different from being self possessed, a trait that can lead to narcissism. The answer may lay in Cummings’ final analysis of Courbet, she says that “He paints himself over and again, bodied forth in all his glory, without ever acknowledging – still less reflecting upon – his inner self” she argues that he paints himself “to see what he looks like” (4 – p.198). There is no hint in Brotherus’ early or later work that she is interested in what “she” looks like, she certainly makes no attempt to manipulate her appearance with cosmetics or fancy costumes, she is using herself as model with the detached professionalism of a studio photographer as a way of exploring the varied and often complex subjects that form the basis of her series.

Divorce Portrait - Elina Brotherus 1998

Divorce Portrait – Elina Brotherus 1998

In that same period, 1997 to 1998, she also created an emotionally charged series that starts with wedding portraits, honeymoon portraits where she is the only honeymooner and ends with a divorce portrait of her alone in her wedding dress.  This appears to be the beginnings of a transition from straight autobiographical to photographs that open an window into her inner self. This is a series that explores her loneliness, sense of abandonment and all the feelings of isolation that come with the break up of a significant relationship. The holiday snaps of a honeymoon without a partner profoundly expresses a sense of being utterly alone.

This early work begins to reveal Brotherus’ direction as an artist. It is staged with her as the model or actress but, like Jeff Wall, she is depicting real events; unlike Wall they are not events she has witnessed but events she has experienced thereby making the photographs highly personal, revealing and courageous.

It is revealing that in 1999 she saw her work as being an exploration of the human condition as much as it was an expression of her own feelings: “I do believe in the profound ‘sameness’ of human beings. People die and new ones are born; people fall in love and they separate. In every person’s life there are both large and small tragedies, much and little happiness; there are emotions and needs. That is why fragments from my life might seem familiar to others as well. In a way I provide the viewers with a blank screen, a surface on which to project their own feelings and desires. Most often my work deals with love and its side-effects; the absence or presence of it in its different forms.” (3)

Lyon - Elina Brotherus 1999

Lyon – Elina Brotherus 1999

Before completing her MA Brotherus accepted an artist in residence post in France, an experience that led to the creation of two series, Suites Françaises 1 and 2.

Series 1 is predominately landscape, studies in light and form that often lean towards abstraction. Bridges and artificial light are recurring themes that would appear symbolic, especially as this is a time in her life when she is in transition having moved from her home in Finland to a foreign country where she cannot speak the language and naturally feels isolated and unsure. She excludes herself from these landscapes because she couldn’t find herself a place in them (3) but as she moved into Suites Françaises 2 she starts to appear more frequently in what would become some of her best known work.

Like Francesca Woodman Brotherus’ practice has its roots in classical art and the classical themes of photography and in this second series, based around her residency, she uses these genres as a framework within which she can investigate her integration into a foreign society. This is arguably her most discussed work; she decides to learn French using the Post-it note system where she writes the french word for common objects onto a Post-it note and sticks the note onto the object. These photographs show a playful and comedic side to Brotherus that is perhaps less obvious in her other work; in one image she holds a cherry to her nose and labels it “Le Nez de M. Cheval” following an amusing incident when visiting a country house. As a series the pictures reveal the insecurity of being an outsider. Language is the most important means we have of connecting with strangers and our inability to go beyond salutations underlines all the natural feelings of being a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner. By documenting her process of learning a new language and by mapping her progress by moving from Post-it nouns to Post-it concepts brilliantly describes her state of mind and creates a narrative.

Le vélo volé du curé - Elina Brotherus 1999

Le vélo volé du curé – Elina Brotherus 1999

Susan Bright (5 – p.51) sees these series as a transitional stage in Brotherus’ development as she moves from autobiographical work to integrating herself within the landscape, what Bright calls “a more generic comment on the figure and its place in the landscape.”

Thinking back to her own words in regard to not finding a place for herself in Suites Françaises 1 the combination of the two series appear to describe the process of an outsider becoming an insider, or at least less of an outsider, as her language skills and her relationships with French people develop. Brotherus often returns to the idea that by placing herself in the landscape the self-portrait and the landscape photograph “reflect on each other” (3)  and that “the landscapes become charged with meaning and serenity flows into the self portrait” (2) and in Suites Françaises 2 we see a return to the moody and peaceful landscapes that she photographed in Finland but with her and her little yellow labels always included and, by way of the repetition of the idea, dominating the meaning of the picture.

I find her self portraiture intellectually engaging, by that I mean that the meanings and the use of text within the photograph are thought provoking and engaging. However, Jan Kaila (6) makes a pertinent point that we mostly see photographs when they are associated with words, often the photograph is subordinate to the text, and as a result we view photographs very differently than a work of painted art. Even when words are absent from the photograph or its vicinity we are so adjusted to interpreting the photographic image in the context of text that we continue to “read” it.

With Suites Françaises 2 the text is embedded and therefore at its most powerful as a driver of the picture’s meaning and as the Post-it note can act as a sort of universal punctum it potentially distracts the viewer from the other information in the frame or the visual qualities of Brotherus’ work. There are contemporary photographers, some very much of Brotherus’ generation who have discarded most of the visual allure that stimulates our sensory perceptions to leave us with some form of pure meaning. Brotherus is not of this school, from her earliest self portraits and landscapes she has invested her work with form and a carefully selected colour palette and in Suites Françaises 2, if we move beyond the Post-it notes, we find a series of carefully thought through and visually arresting photographs.

Le Main - Elina Brotherus 1999

Le Main – Elina Brotherus 1999

Le Main is a perfect example where the colour combinations are cleverly selected so that even her hair finds a place as another yellow, the composition is strong and precise with the lock adding just enough balance to the top half of the frame and her eyes and the wonderful distressed paint work offer themselves as different points of visual interest.

It is no surprise to find this picture on the front cover of Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art because it sums up much that is good about the work of Brotherus’s generation; graphic design, form, strong composition, thoughtful colour pallet and multiple layers of intriguing meaning.

Having adjusted to how Brotherus leverages the relationship between words and the picture to create complex and multi-layered meanings we are asked to reassess our view of her when we move onto The New Painting. A series that I will consider in a separate book review.

In her talk to the OCA (1) Brotherus talks of how she approaches her work. She carries out shoots on her on own so there is no external influence on her pace, she leaves her captured images to rest before reviewing and editing them months later and undertakes long collaborations to design her exhibitions and books. This approach is exhibited in Model Studies which, on her website includes photographs taken between 2002 and 2008. She is obviously running with a number of parallel projects as these timescales overlap with The New Painting and Large de vue, Hommage à Erik Satie as well as Artist and her Model. 

Model Study 5 - Elina Brotherus 2004

Model Study 5 – Elina Brotherus 2004

If  Suites Françaises 1 and 2. Series 1 show how she integrated self portrait into a broader indoor and outdoor landscape and retained strong autobiographical elements then Model Studies proves the point that Brotherus is an artist motivated to create visually exciting work.

In her own words these photographs “have been constructed for visual reasons. My attention is attached to light, colours, the rythm of the masses, and to subject matters with classical notions.” (3) I highlight this comment because it shows that there are still artist photographers who are not obsessed with meaning and who feel confident that their reputation as artists will not be eroded by creating work that is primarily designed for its visual qualities.

Art has always been a mixture of information or meaning and visual allure, we often appear to discuss form and content as if they are mutually exclusive and there is a whole industry of critics and writers who find meaning where none was intended. I very much enjoyed Model Studies as we “are allowed” to sit back and let our sensory perceptions do the work without there being any onus on us to “read” the photograph. I particularly liked Model Study 5 which seemed to reference Francesca Woodman, another outstanding self portrait photographer.

All her work is relevant to an investigation of mirrors and windows but to discuss each series in detail is beyond the scope of this essay so I will draw to some sort of conclusion.

In her writings (2) she tests the truth of the feminist critique that landscape photography is masculinist because it is a subconscious desire on the part of photographer to conquer and possess; in doing so she raises the issue of whether genres of photography could be categorised as predominately the domain of men or women. With this thought in mind I question whether her autobiographical and non autobiographical self portraits could have been taken by a man.

There are several other female photographers, in fact, Cummings calls them a “long line of women” (4 – p.263) who have “striped themselves bare” to explore their own bodies and psychological state in a broadly similar way. Cindy Sherman (discussed here) and Francesca Woodman (discussed here) come to mind as obvious examples. It would be wrong to suggest that they shared the same motivations or intents, I would argue that Woodman was experimenting with her own interpretation of classical forms of representation and probably, having heard interviews with her parents, her inner demons; Sherman was initially, perhaps primarily, using photography as a way to give meaning to her love of dressing up and role play which could be interpreted as a fear of being seen as oneself; she said “I guess whenever I would get moody or depressed, I would spend a couple of hours turning myself into somebody else with makeup or clothes. It was a cathartic thing I needed to do.” (4 – p.257) And in the nineties Brotherus is exploring her uncertainties, fears, and emotional highs and lows by using herself as an example of the human condition; thereby investigating that condition as deeply as any documentarist.

However, despite these differences they have a common willingness or, perhaps it is a desire, to put themselves into the picture in both a physically and emotionally revealing way. To test this idea I returned to Susan Bright’s Auto Focus (8) to look at other contemporary self portrait artists who reveal themselves in a similar or intimate way. Out of twenty two photographers whose work in this book might loosely be categorised as being intimate only five are men, in fact the majority of the self portrait photographers featured here are women which might be a result of Bright’s selection process or suggest that photographic self portraiture in general is a genre dominated by women. Laura Cumming’s “long line of women” have stripped themselves bare in self portraits to argue a sociopolitical point regarding the male gaze or as Cummings says “to expose the truth of the female body” but, whatever their visual, political or documentary intent this involves self exposure to a degree that appears uncommon amongst male photographers.

I am neither qualified to offer a theory as to why this might be the case, nor, based on this thin evidence, suggesting that I am stating a fact but I have the impression the cliché that men find it harder than women to express their emotions might contain more than an element of truth in this context and be paralleled by an unwillingness to reveal themselves both emotionally and physically through their photography.

There are many interesting things that can be said about Elina Brotherus, her position on the top table of contemporary artists is well deserved, but I am left with two overriding thoughts. Firstly that the very best artist photographers, however much their pictures are loaded with layered meanings, take photographs that are sensitive to the history of the visual arts by stimulating our aesthetic attention, creating something that is visually compelling. David Hurn tells us that “The photographer’s aim is to create beautiful pictures, of any and all subject matter”; Brotherus achieves that goal.

Secondly, that she presents us with an intriguing paradox; Val Williams (10) asked whether “it is possible to be objective when self is the subject”; Brotherus, by opening a window onto herself to explore the universal human condition proves not only that it can be done but that it can be done in a remarkable way.



(4) Cummings, Laura (2010) A Face to the World: Laura Cummings on Self-Portraits. London: Harper Press

(5) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(7) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(8) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson

(9) Hurn, David & Jay, Bill (1997) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (Kindle Edition 2010) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing.


(1) Brotherus, Elina (2015) Elina Brotherus Talk from open College of the Arts (accessed on 28.4.16) – http://www.oca-student.com/content/photographers-talking?page=1#comment-72335


(2) Brotherus, Elina (1998 – 2000) Sketchbook Notes (accessed at the artist’s website 28.4.16) – http://www.elinabrotherus.com/assets/pdf/articles/brotherus_sketchbook_98.pdf

(3) Brotherus, Elina (1997 – 2016) Official Website (accessed at the artist’s website 28.4.16) – http://www.elinabrotherus.com/news/

(6) Kaila, Jan (2006) Elina Brotherus (accessed at the artist’s website 28.4.16) – http://www.elinabrotherus.com/assets/pdf/articles/kaila_sydney_en_06.pdf

(10) Williams, Val (2001) Val Williams on Elina Brotherus (accessed at the artist’s website 28.4.16) – http://www.elinabrotherus.com/assets/pdf/articles/williams_eb_en_01.pdf

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2 Responses to Elina Brotherus: Where the Mirror is a Window

  1. Catherine says:

    Quit complicated but an interesting viewpoint on mirrors and windows. I went to that talk and am recalling now that Elina Brotherus didn’t actually say how she feels when she looks at the images of herself except that Suite Francaises 2 enabled her to see how she had changed..

  2. I am sure I would have enjoyed the talk but I didn’t find the video especially revealing. Her notes that are on her website and the art its statements with each series were far more revealing. My thought, which of course could be wrong, is that she is more objective when using herself as a model now than she was in Suite Francaises. Either way a vey interesting person and I love her landscapes with our without her in them.

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