A young artist named Tomoko Sawada has gained attention from her art, seemingly dealing only in varied self-portraits. Well, self-portraits of a kind: she poses in different personas for each one, often in different places. An archived article of the New York Times at the Zabriskie Gallery links Sawada to the art form of the self-portrait, perhaps richer in history than one might have imagined:

When the self-portrait studio came to the amusement park in the late 1920’s, people were appropriately amused. When it came to the railroad station, travelers considered it as good as a vacation, and when it came to Woolworth’s, people were glad to find it cheap. It was called a photo booth. Just a little room with a lens and nobody but you in it to tell you to smile or to make you self-conscious, it was a quick chance for some narcissistic fun while no one was looking, and it had an aura of secrecy and daring. In 1927 a photo magazine said: “You need no longer be dull in Boston if you have 25 cents and a face. Go to the new Photomaton, in Filene’s basement, some noon and see how romance and adventure have been injected into the hitherto grim business of having your picture taken.”

This phenomenon was invented in 1925 by a Siberian immigrant to America named Anatol Josepho, and in 1927 a group of businessmen bought it for the equivalent of $10 million in today’s money.


Sort of an American invention? Here’s more:

While the French use photo booths mainly to make identification cards, put an artist like Tomoko Sawada into a booth and ID goes down the drain. Ms. Sawada’s disguises outnumber the quick-change artist’s, the master criminal’s and the worst case of Multiple Personality Disorder rolled into one. There are 399 versions of her in head shots — 401 if you count the two that are “really” her — and another 30 in full figure at the Zabriskie Gallery in midtown right now. What’s more, each of the 401 head-and-shoulders images is repeated four times, so that you’re confronted with 1,604 Tomoko Sawadas, almost all of them not exactly herself. “Tomoko Sawada: Two Photographic Series,”through Sept. 6, is the last word on saving face.

And she even makes commentary on Japanese culture, bygone and not:

Ms. Sawada also slyly comments on portrait studios in a series that takes off on the diminishing but still extant Japanese tradition of arranged marriages, in which formal portraits of potential brides are presented by the woman’s parents to other families in the hope of finding a suitable groom. She went to a professional studio 30 times as different women, posing in front of a tilted heart. (Did the photographer think he was abetting a fraud or a desperate wallflower?) Sometimes she went traditional and basically demure in a kimono, her mitten-sock toes in sandals delicately pointed inward, looking prim or giggly, smiling or coquettish. Other times she went modern, with blond hair or high boots, platforms, or chunky shoes, once all in black from head to toe with a rose under her chin, once in a pink hat, pink dress, pink gloves, pink stockings and shoes.

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