John Coplans

Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees)


Not on display

John Coplans 1920–2003
Photograph, black and white, on paper
Image: 968 × 1108 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Marsha Plotnitsky 2000


This is a black and white photograph of the artist’s knees over which he has placed his hands. The photograph was taken at the level of the knees, viewing them directly from the front. Coplans’s fingers are spread over his kneecaps, his hands touching at the thumbs and index fingers. The skin at the joint of his knuckles appears stretched. The image is tightly cropped, ending at the artist’s wrists at the upper edge and the bottom of his knees at the lower edge. A narrow margin of white background on either side of the legs frames the body. Thick black hair covering the artist’s legs curls off his skin and contrasts sharply with the white ground. Massively enlarged, the depicted body parts become like a landscape of skin texture and body contours. The silver gelatin print has the sharp qualities of an etching, emphasising surface detail. Strong studio lighting has created dark shadows behind the wrists and in the space between the knees below the fingers, conferring a dramatic atmosphere.

Born in London, Coplans initially trained as a painter and moved to the United States in 1960, the year after seeing an inspirational exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painting, The New American Painting, at the Tate Gallery. 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. Central to Abstract Expressionism was a concern to express unconscious elements deep within the psyche. For Coplans, this relates to a kind of universal primitivism, which he has referred to as ‘being in touch genetically with the inheritance of mankind as an inner thing, something that we all have within. The genetic code has a memory embedded in it, a memory of our past ancestry ... when I began those photographs; I was very interested in this idea of genetic memory.’ (Quoted in Morris, p.75.) He began to think about the body as being able to express a language originating in a collective unconscious, something universal, primordial and direct. By photographing sections of his own body, 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. Presenting his ageing 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 (Hands Spread on Knees) was produced in an edition of three (plus one artist’s proof) of which this is the second.

Further reading:
A Body: John Coplans, New York 2001, reproduced p.18
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

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2003

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Display caption

These photos were taken by the artist John Coplans of his own gnarled and wrinkled body.


Although they are self-portraits, Coplans doesn't show his face. Instead he focuses on isolated body parts such as hands
and feet, showing them enlarged
and close-up, so that they seem
at once familiar and unfamiliar.
Coplans' monumental images recall classical sculpture, whilst emphasising the relentless progression of the
aging process.


Gallery label, August 2004

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