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Curious Frame - Issue #34 - Mirror, Mirror

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #34 - Mirror, Mirror
By Leanne Staples • Issue #34 • View online
I’m a thinker. That is not to say that I’m intelligent. What it does mean is that I can get lost in thought about what life would be like without photography?
I guess it’s always been like a game to imagine just taking one thing out of a larger picture to see if it’s even remotely possible to turn back time enough to imagine different possibilities.
In this issue of Curious Frame I ponder what mirrors mean to photography. I also wonder what the world would be like without mirrors.
I suppose that my fascination with photos of reflections of all kinds has something to do with this topic. I never really thought about or understood how we might perceive something differently by viewing it in a mirror rather than directly. The second further viewing video discusses that a bit.
But you should know, that all of my writing aims to be easy to read. I don’t have an advanced degree of any sort and I don’t want you to think that it’s necessary to understanding this newsletter.
So, if by chance I don’t do a good job of clearly explaining my thoughts, please do let me know. Thanks for your well wishes and correspondences! Be curious.

Reader's Comments:
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required. The comment below is from the previous issue on Believing is Seeing.
Ah! how many signs have I seen in the sky and I think they were shooting stars and not UFOs! 
Believe me, signals are sent to us every day, to street photographers, in the scenes of our daily lives, but for each one of us, it hides a message, and as soon as we see and photograph them, it’s like taking off the cover or veil, and we undress the scene that will transmit this message to others, messages of love, hate, desire, messages of life and life. 
Photography has the power to register and reveal the signs, even if they are in blurry photos and even if you can say now that it was a photoshop effect or the effect of a dish launched into space and photographed like a flying saucer, I would really like to be with my camera ready for the day I see a flying saucer in the sky!
Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, the truth is out there and maybe one day we’ll capture it with our cameras!
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Mirror, Mirror
mirror mirror, New York City, October 2012.
mirror mirror, New York City, October 2012.
 If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors. Bertolt Brecht
In the history of the world, one of the most overlooked inventions is the mirror. It has changed the nature of art, photography and the way that we see ourselves. 
In other words, it has shaped the world that we live in. Not bad for something we aren’t often conscious of. A mirror is low tech and yet it plays an important role in many aspects of everyday life. With a mirror we watch ourselves watching ourselves.
Johannes Gutenberg pictured on a Bulgarian postage stamp to celebrate 600 years since his invention of the moveable type printing press, March 1997.
Johannes Gutenberg pictured on a Bulgarian postage stamp to celebrate 600 years since his invention of the moveable type printing press, March 1997.
Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press is often cited as the first and most important invention of mass communication up to the creation of the internet more than 500 years later.
A little unknown or overlooked fact about Gutenberg is that in 1438 he and three other men created what they called “holy mirrors.” Gutenberg set up a shop to sell them and it is considered to be the first shop to sell mirrors to the general public. That was 6 years before the printing press.
The Oldtype "Gutenberg B" Font  Johann Gutenberg - Mainz, ca. 1455
The Oldtype "Gutenberg B" Font Johann Gutenberg - Mainz, ca. 1455
On a side note, the Gutenberg Bible that you will find in many hotel bed stands is named after him because that was a major contribution that he made in mass communication. He brought the bible to the masses. The New York Public Library owns one of the originals.
Mirrors are as old as time and in the ancient world it was believed that a person’s soul was contained in their reflection. The earliest mirrors were pools of water.
Then around 6000 BCE stone mirrors were used often made of obsidian. Next, around 400 BCE copper mirrors were made and then in the 1st century glass mirrors made their first appearance. But for the most part, mirrors were reserved for the wealthy.  
Photo of my daughter, Marlies, taken by my very good friend, Joshua Evan, New York City, July 2021.
Photo of my daughter, Marlies, taken by my very good friend, Joshua Evan, New York City, July 2021.
Mirrors have remained a constant fascination of humanity for both positive and negative reasons. On the positive side, mirrors reveal not only how we look, but possibly who we are. 
They hold the possibility of revealing more than what the surface can display. They can also be useful when photographing someone who’s shy or employed for artistic purposes.
Joan Crawford had classic narcissistic personality disorder. However, she was always in front of the camera. So she didn't need to take selfies of herself. The film Mommie Dearest illustrates Crawford's narcissism.
Joan Crawford had classic narcissistic personality disorder. However, she was always in front of the camera. So she didn't need to take selfies of herself. The film Mommie Dearest illustrates Crawford's narcissism.
The negative side of the story is an over fascination with our physical appearance. It is called narcissism and comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his image. 
I wrote about the age of narcissism and the selfie in Issue 4 of this newsletter. Thanks to Freud, we have the narcissist personality disorder. 
The difference between a mirror being a positive force or a negative one is the extent to which we get lost in our own appearance. Is the subject looking at the viewer or is the viewer merely a voyeur?
Claude Cahun (France) Self-Portrait 1928. Cahun (born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, 25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French surrealist photographer, sculptor, and writer. Cahun's work was both political and personal, and often undermined traditional concepts of static gender roles.
Claude Cahun (France) Self-Portrait 1928. Cahun (born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, 25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French surrealist photographer, sculptor, and writer. Cahun's work was both political and personal, and often undermined traditional concepts of static gender roles.
Mirrors are interesting both in a literal and metaphorical sense. And they have played a very important role in art and photography. And as an extension, to culture in general. 
Does art imitate life or life imitate art? It’s the chicken or the egg question. They are both intrinsically connected. The answer may never be known. 
Throughout the history of art, self-portraits are very common. Before the camera, mirrors were used. Since the invention of the camera, mirrors continue to play a role.
This has led to photography as a form of performance art as seen in the work of Claude Cahun (as shown above) as well as Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman to name a few.
Saul Leiter, untitled, 1950s. Yes, Leiter is my favorite photographer of all time. I never tire of his work.
Saul Leiter, untitled, 1950s. Yes, Leiter is my favorite photographer of all time. I never tire of his work.
Whether the photographer uses an actual mirror or a reflective surface isn’t really important. The effects can often be created either way.
Photos are in a manner of speaking, reflections or mirrors. When we look at a photo, we look for ourselves in it. Do we fit into the image or is it outside of our experience of the world?
A photograph taken with a mirror can either be an exact reproduction backwards, or it can be like Saul Leiter’s photo (shown above,) merely an indistinct outline.
Do we always need more detail? Nuance can be an asset in art whether it’s photography, painting or writing. It can draw us into the image and cause us to fill in our own story.
Velazquez, Diego (1599-1660) - 1648 The Toilet of Venus (National Gallery, London)
Velazquez, Diego (1599-1660) - 1648 The Toilet of Venus (National Gallery, London)
In Velazquez’s painting of Venus the mirror plays an important role. Is she looking at us? Or is it vanity? Yes, mirrors can create more ambiguity than fact. The mirror is integral to the composition and leaves us to decide the meaning.
Another important aspect of the use or mirrors in art is about how women were excluded from the normal activities of their male counterparts who were able to use models to paint from.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556, Lancut Museum, Poland.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556, Lancut Museum, Poland.
Mirrors would become a liberating tool for women artists like Anguissola, who were denied the ability to work with live models.
Even in the 1950s women were not able to partake in the art school studios that were available to male studios.
Anguissola does one better by not only presenting us with a painting of her, but also with a painting that she’s painting!
Immigrant, East Harlem, self-portrait, May 2017.
Immigrant, East Harlem, self-portrait, May 2017.
Sometimes a mirror can be used to actually include us in the work. The above photo is from a wall of street art addressing the issue of discrimination against immigrants.
There are many such examples of artists using mirrors or reflective surfaces so that we can see ourselves in the work. Of course, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, also known to many as The Bean in Chicago is one of the most famous.
Unfortunately, many works that use reflective surfaces are really more gimmicky than anything and they are often designed as Instagram moments.
Circus mirrors are a lot of fun if you can find them. I took these photos in Chicago in 2009.
Circus mirrors are a lot of fun if you can find them. I took these photos in Chicago in 2009.
Art and photography can go in a few different directions. You can work on 100% realistic representations. Or you go abstract. Yes, I quite like varying degrees of abstract photography. It’s so easy to get hung up on seeing yourself realistically. Whatever that is.
Germaine Krull, Self portrait with cigarette (Autoportrait à l'Icarette)  c. 1925.
Germaine Krull, Self portrait with cigarette (Autoportrait à l'Icarette) c. 1925.
Before the internet it was difficult to see what an artist looked like without going to a gallery when their work was available to see publicly.
The self portrait was very common not only for painters, but also for photographers. That was especially so with women artists whose work was not shown publicly as much as male artists. And a self portrait was often art as well.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Grimms’ Brothers, Snow White.
There are so many other possible directions that mirrors and photography can be discussed. But let me end this by saying that we might not have cameras as we know them without mirrors.
You may have realized by now that the technological side of things is not my forte. So above is an illustration of SLR (single lens reflex) cameras which use mirrors. That is true of DSLRs as well
Range finder, point and shoot and mirrorless cameras being the exception to this diagram. To quote from an article in Digital Trends:
The mirror in a DSLR bounces it up to the optical viewfinder. In a mirrorless camera, there is no optical viewfinder. Instead, the imaging sensor is exposed to light at all times. This gives you a digital preview of your image either on the rear LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Mirrorless cameras are called “mirrorless,” rather than DSLRs being called “mirrored,” simply because they came second.
The point here is not to get into the technical, rather it’s to illustrate how important mirrors are to photography. It’s possible that we would all still be shooting with range finder cameras without mirrors.
As always, I look forward to your comments on the newsletter. This issue or previous ones.
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Curious Frame | Revue
Further reading:
Higgie, Jennifer. Look Closely, in Frieze magazine, No. 218, April 2021
Further viewing:
There are 2 short films here on different aspects that mirrors have played a role in both art and Western thought.
Mirrors in Pre-Raphaelite paintings | Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites
Effect of mirrors on art and psychology
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You can also find me at:
Skirting the Edges - Leanne Staples
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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