This is a black and white photograph of the artist’s chest and stomach. The image is tightly cropped, severing head, neck and arms at the top of the chest, and genitals and legs at the groin. At either side, a narrow sliver of white background is included, revealing the contours of the artist’s torso. His arms are raised. Black hairs curl over his chest and stomach, framing his nipples and blending with white hairs on his chest and at the base of his neck. At the centre of his stomach, above his navel, wrinkles and pores are sharply defined. Dark shadows around the sides of the artist’s belly evoke the contours of a natural landscape. The large scale to which it is magnified reinforces this effect. Hairs growing in areas which are in focus have the appearance of thick, black wires. Out of focus, they have the quality of a charcoal drawing. The raised edge of a scar, possibly the result of an appendectomy, is visible just under the artist’s stomach on the left side. Coplans’ pose and the way he has framed his body transforms a familiar and even banal object into a strange and possibly sinister image. A slab of dark-textured flesh, his torso also evokes a crudely-rendered face: his nipples and the dark hair framing them may be read as eyes and his creased belly button a downward curving mouth. Viewed in this way, the Self Portrait recalls a painting by Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967), The Rape (Le Viol) 1934 (Menil Collection, Houston), in which a naked female torso is substituted for a woman’s face.
Born in London, Coplans initially trained as a painter and moved to the United States in 1960. He stopped making paintings in the early 1960s, working as a teacher, curator, writer and editor and was intimately involved with the art magazine Artforum until the end of the 1970s. In 1979 he took up photography. He explained: ‘I decided to become a photographer because I wanted to go back to being an artist. I had had enough of art history, critics, museology ... I chose photography because I could not go back to painting ... photography ... is a medium to build an identity out of a composite personality, to find an artistic identity.’ (Quoted in John Coplans: Self Portrait: Hand/Foot, p.46.) Since 1984, his subject has been his own body. By photographing sections of it, but always excluding his face, Coplans divests it of a sense of wholeness. Cropped and dramatically enlarged, the parts of his body depicted in black and white recall the finely detailed photographs of the American landscape produced in the nineteenth century by Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). A long-time admirer of Watkins’s work, Coplans had sold his personal collection of thirty photographs by Watkins in order to finance his own photography in 1981.
Coplans uses a video camera and monitor to view parts of his body. Once he has selected an area, an assistant takes a photograph using positive/negative Polaroid film. This film creates instant images at the same time as a negative which may be used for later printing in large scale. Coplans deliberately avoids any kind of pose or gesture which may communicate a familiar message. Instead he focuses on more ambiguous physical properties, which are aestheticised by the way that he lights, crops and prints his photographs. While the fragmentation of a male body may recall such Classical sculptures as the Belvedere Torso (1st century BC, Vatican Museums, Rome) and, more recently, Surrealist photographs such as The Big Toe 1929 by Jacques-André Boiffard (1902-61), the presentation of a naked patriarchal body is traditionally taboo in Western culture. Coplans has commented that: ‘these photographs refer to “body politics” in the sense that “oldness” is a taboo in American society, which tends to worship beauty and youth, consequently the aging of old bodies must be hidden from view, for they are imperfect, very often diseased and [will] soon perish.’ (Quoted in Morris, p.76.) Presenting his ageing male body as textured surface or surreal object rather than the locus of a thinking subject, depersonalised rather than defined by his identity, Coplans subverts traditional self-portraiture and historical representation of the body in photography.
Self Portrait (Torso Front) was produced in an edition of three (plus one artist’s proof), of which this is the third.
John Coplans: A Self Portrait 1984-1999, exhibition catalogue, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh 1999, p.5, reproduced p.4
John Coplans: Self Portrait: Hand/Foot, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1990
Stuart Morgan, Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Tate Gallery, London 1995, pp.74-87, reproduced p.77