In a self-portrait taken in 1933, undoubtedly the most erotic self-portrait of a woman photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, this Berlin photographer poses, with her cable release in her hand, as a young woman obviously skilful at the game of concealing and revealing. She has deliberately opened her fashionable, fur-trimmed housecoat in order to view her beautiful naked body on the ground-glass screen of the camera. As she is standing to one side of the mirror, her face is hidden by her hair, heightening still further the subtle eroticism of this photograph. Her gaze into the viewfinder of the camera, as though refusing to look herself and, by the same token, the imagined viewer in the eye as she performs her exhibitionist act, seems modest and outdated compared with the erotic self-portraits of women photographers today. At once narcissistic and voyeuristic, this self-portrait is less an occupational portrait of the kind intended for publication – we know of no publication of this photograph prior to 1979 – than a private study of a young woman photographer using her professional skills to explore, and take delight in, the eroticism of her appearance.
Although the shadow has a significant part to play in the mythical origins of drawing and painting – according to Pliny, it was the Greek potter Butades who created the first portrait bust after his daughter had traced the shadow of her lover’s face on the wall (“Naturalis historia”)-, it did not figure at all in the photography of the 19th century. It was not until the inception of photographic modernism, which evolved from the awareness of its autonomy, that photography discovered the shadow as the very essence of the photographic image – hence the enormous number of shadow photographs during the 1920s and 1930s. With the development of the technique of cameraless photography, the white, “negative” silhouette became an autonomous form of artistic expression (“Rayographs” by Man Ray and “photograms” by László Moholy-Nagy). The photographic print itself may be compared to a shadow, for it unites the dialectic of presence and absence. Indeed, is it not the photograph, this modern expression of permanence resulting from an exposure of but a fleeting moment, which has something just as ephemeral about it as a shadow? With just a few exceptions, all the photographers of modernism, men and women alike, have photographed themselves as shadows. One of the first was Alfred Stieglitz, who captured his and a friend’s shadow on the surface of a stretch of water in 1916. Lucia Moholy, Ilse Bing and Imogen Cunningham likewise photographed themselves as projected shadows. In one of Gisèle Freund’s earliest self-portraits, taken in 1929, her face blends with the shadow of a friend; Lucia Moholy merged her face with that of her husband László Moholy-Nagy to form one single silhouette in a photogram made in 1926.