Self-Portrait (Feet Frontal)

This is a black and white photograph of the artist’s feet, greatly enlarged. Touching at the joints of the big toes, the feet are flexed so that the toes remain on the ground while the heels are raised. The image is cropped at the ankles to emphasise the narrow space between the arches of the feet. At the bottom of the photograph, two toes on one foot and three on another have been included within the image. Because the camera is so close to them they are seen in foreshortened perspective, partially out of focus. The surfaces of the front of the feet are more sharply defined. Hairs growing on the top of the big toes and near the ball of the foot have the appearance of thick, black wires. A line of tiny scabs on the left foot appear as a surface pattern. Strong contrasts between light and dark in the photograph contribute to its visual impact. Combined with the tight crop and the enlarging of the image, these formal elements create a monumental appearance which suggests the timelessness and universality of an archetype. 

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. 

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. By photographing sections of his own body, but always excluding his face, he divests it of a sense of wholeness. 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 parts of his body in an apparently objective manner, as a textured surface on which the memory of his past life is imprinted by wear and ageing, Coplans creates a self portrait which is at once anonymous and intensely personal. 

Self Portrait (Feet Frontal) was produced in an edition of three, of which this is additional artist’s proof. 

Further reading: 

John Coplans: A Self Portrait 1984-1999, exhibition catalogue, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh 1999, reproduced p.9 

John Coplans: Self Portrait: Hand/Foot, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1990, reproduced p.39 pl.26 

Stuart Morgan, Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Tate Gallery, London 1995, pp.74-87, reproduced p.75 

written by Elizabeth Manchester, May 2003