When self-portraits become metamorphosis

A look at women transforming themselves to fight for gender rights during the ‘70s and the ‘80s


The ancient Roman poet Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', depicted women turning into elements of the natural world: plants, rocks, animals. A shift from the male gaze happens in the renaissance period when women start to represent themselves through self-portraits. By the 70’s and 80’s self-portraits become tools that allow women to redefine themselves through transformation.

The self-portrait

To make a self-portrait is a schizoid act.

Susan Butler, 'So How Do I Look? Women Before and Behind the Camera'

American journalist and biographer Susan Butler claims that there is a significant difference the photographer has to face between self-perception and the way people perceive their appearance. When looking at a photograph, one is essentially observing a part of the world through the eyes of the photographer at the precise moment when the photo was taken. When a woman takes a self-portrait, she compels the world to see her as she desires.

Self-portraits are, in the modern era, a way for women to exert control over the perception others have of them, especially in a society where the representation of women is often mediated by the male gaze in art, cinema, and media.

During the '70s and '80s, the voices of women spread across Europe and America, advocating for a more equal society. The intentions and ideas behind the movements were diverse. Some groups advocated for changes in individual laws, while others believed that rebellion had to target the structure of society. This phenomenon witnessed women breaking free from family isolation and coming together.

Women’s metamorphosis

From the need to be individually seen as they desired, some female photographers leaped into the power of depicting categories of women (from different socioeconomic classes and ethnicities to different eras), or all women, as they wished, to make the world see all women as they intended. But they also altered their appearance through art to convey a message.

Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’ is one of the few examples of ancient Latin narrative texts that consists of tales explaining ancient myths, where individuals were transformed into something different – Echo into a stone, Daphne into a tree – by gods. With a modern sensibility, Ovid also put himself in women’s shoes and represented in ‘Metamorphoses’ women's inner struggles.

Photography in the ‘70s and 80’s showed women transforming themselves. They changed their appearance through self-representation as a reflection of a significant societal change. They played with the metamorphosis that society had historically imposed on them: turning women into objects of male desire and stereotypes.

Cindy Sherman – transforming into the stereotype of myself

Cindy Sherman is a renowned American artist, photographer, and filmmaker. She has always been passionate about costumes and transformation. Her 'Untitled Film Stills' series (1977-1980) consists of over 70 pictures. She portrays herself dressed as iconic Hollywood stars, shedding light on the voyeuristic gaze of cinema, representing women’s body and identity as a simulacrum of male desire.

Recently, she was featured in a Marc Jacobs campaign for its upcoming 2024 spring/summer collection. At 70 years old, Sherman was selected because of her role in transforming the perception of beauty and identity. In the advertisement, Sherman once again undergoes a transformation, turning herself into a rebel punk rocker and into a businesswoman in sky-high heels.

Libera Mazzoleni – the witch

During the 1970s, feminist movements turned their attention towards the history of witches. Feminism reexamined the witches' story and the historic oppression of these women that took rise from the 1400s and saw from 40,000 to 60,000 trials ending with capital punishment in Europe. Rediscovering it and aligning with the role of witches, women in the '70s felt they were consistently transformed into a demonised version of themselves when they gained power.

The Italian artist Libera Mazzoleni worked on 'Le Streghe' (the Witches) from 1975 to 1976. It is a series of 12 pictures in which she used the technique of photographic collage to juxtapose her self-portraits inside portraits of witches from lithographs dating back to the 1500s.

I am part of the history of the demonisation of women, like every woman who has been destroyed by the violence of a history that erased non-absorbable existences.

Carolee Schneemann – turning myself into a sofa

Carolee Schneemann was an American artist and painter who scandalised modern society with her works and performances due to their explicit content. Her first work, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), is a captivating exploration of the objectification of women.

Through 36 pictures, she depicts herself gradually transforming into an object among the other items in her loft, surrounded by feathers, heels, and broken mirrors, as shown in the picture above.

Tomaso Binga – an alphabet made of me

Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, known as Tomaso Binga, is an Italian poet and conceptual artist. Particularly interested in blending art and language, in 1976 she brought to life her most famous work 'Alfabetiere murale' (Alphabet mural) , in which she recreates the alphabet using her body – a concept now referred to as ‘scrittura vivente’ (asemic writing).

Her work stemmed from the need to change the way society talked and thought about women and the female body – a real body and not an idea of the male mind – and to remember that change is also in the words we use.

In Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses', women transform into flowers because they become the victim of a god who doesn’t know what “no” means. With the rising of feminist tides, women are reclaiming control over how the world perceives them: no more like flowers, rocks and robins due to men’s behaviour.