Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Matthew Morrocco’s multi-layered Mirror Portraits

The subjects of Mirror Portraits contemplate themselves from multiple angles — from within each portrait, and beyond them
Feature, British Journal of Photography — July 2020 

Photo: Matthew Morrocco

Just as each of Matthew Morrocco’s Mirror Portraits holds many layers, the series — as a whole — contains multiple meanings. Individually, the portraits capture friends and acquaintances; their expressions repeated and reflected in the circular mirrors, which populate each frame — looking-glasses into which the sitters’ compose, and then contemplate, versions of themselves for the camera. Collectively, the portraits signal the significance of the genre in an era dominated by the phone-selfie and, more specifically, the significance of multiple portraits when considered together.

“It was not my aim to embody the character of the people who sat for portraits — to me, that was their job,” reflects Morrocco, who invited artists, writers, editors, collectors (the list goes on) to sit for him in his bedroom. “My main goal was to create a larger group-snapshot of artists working today — the whole being more important than the individual picture. This project is about what it means to create a culture at large, not, necessarily, about any single person’s identity.”

The subjects who populate Morrocco’s Mirror Portraits command the images that depict them — their expressions, their postures, their styles, defining each frame. Before verdant backdrops — of blossoming flowers and spindly trees — they pose: faces tilting, heads cocked, arms curled around the mirrors, which reflect them. Some appear strong, while others are delicate; melancholia sits alongside introspection; self-consciousness alongside confidence.

“I typically asked people who are not often in front of a camera — and they had to stare directly at themselves during the shoot because of the mirror,” says Morrocco. “It was not my intention to make people uncomfortable but it does add a certain level of self-consciousness to be photographed in front of a mirror.” Despite this, a sense of peace permeates the images: the warmth of the light and the gloriousness of the backdrops imbuing the subjects with a certain etherealness — elevating them to heavenly beings suspended in the golden glow of Morrocco’s home-studio.

Morrocco himself is present in many of the images — an arm jutting into view; a torso hunched over the camera, its flash bursting through the picture — which recalls the work of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a friend and fellow photographer, who also features in Mirror Portraits. Similarly to Morrocco’s series, fragments of Sepuya’s body often enter his deconstructed frames. “More than anything my use of the mirror comes from a desire to champion photographers,” explains Morrocco, who believes the makers of images are often disregarded; photographs take on their own identities and the individuals behind them are forgotten. The mirror allows Morrocco to occupy each still, cementing his place as the central protagonist “without becoming a central figure in the images themselves”.

Emphasising the interconnectedness of the creative community is also a central facet of the series. “Culture is a group effort,” continues Morrocco, “and I thought it would be useful for future generations to know that. When I was younger I just assumed that great artists always came up with their ideas in isolation, which is not true — almost all artists have interactions with other artists, and that is how larger aesthetic-visions define generations”. The series should encapsulate that: representing the creative community to which Morrocco belongs – collectively, and in regard to the individuals who compose it.

Ultimately, Mirror Portraits evolved from Morrocco’s belief that, in the era of the selfie, portraits alone have lost their gravitas; they have become ubiquitous and easy to make: “I can make a portrait of myself every day and be a different character in each one but the value of all those images together says something about my identity at large.”

However, as much as the work challenges the ephemerality of the selfie or mirror portrait, it also rifts of it, reshaping a format, which has become pervasive. The artist co-opts the mirror portrait and transforms it into something else, filling it with meaning and significance: “In our contemporary world, photography is the most important and effective medium for communication,” he says. “Everybody takes photos, which means everyone is fluent in the language of photography, and because I have things to say, I make photographs.”