The revealing and intimate self-portraits of Jen Davis are a poignant statement on beauty, identity, and body image. In a society that still finds Lena Dunham’s nudity and sexuality on Girls shocking, I think Davis’ photos are even more unabashed and incredible, in the best way.
These self-portraits were taken over a period of 11 years, from 2002 to 2013. They range from sensual to uncomfortable. Even the lighting ranges from bright to dramatic, often using natural light. During this time she experienced an evolution not just physically — having surgery in 2011 and taking other steps to lose weight and be more healthy — but also mentally.
Davis initially took a self-portrait because she “wanted to see what the outside world saw.” However, she was uncomfortable sharing some photos at first. While in a darkroom with other people, she covered parts of the photos that showed her body with a piece of paper. She then began to open up more emotionally over time, which you can see reflected in the work.
“It wasn’t until I was at this residency when we were digitizing my work … when you’re going in and blowing them up that big, and looking at your body, everything changes. They way you see rolls, or a vein, or my chin. I was confronted now with myself and there were people around me talking about my body,” Davis says, “At that point I needed to make some changes. I didn’t want to wake up at 40 and be in the same body. Being in a dark room, literally being in a dark room — that changed me.”
The photos show Davis both nude and in varying amounts of clothing. The scenes are from daily life, and in them Davis is doing things like showering, eating, or getting dressed. Some of the photos also show her embracing men. I even notice a change in the way she interacts with men in her photos over time: titling some earlier pieces as “fantasies” and later using men’s names.
“The work, ultimately, is about our discomfort with our self. I didn’t know how to look at myself objectively. It’s both relevant and irrelevant, but we all have to figure out what others expect of us and deal with those said expectations. We’re so image and power obsessed that it is hard to let your guard down to get to know someone, even yourself,” she says.