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Desparately Seeking Self

Freshman Laura Goldberg

“My photos for my self-portrait project turned out pretty well,” freshman Laura Goldberg told her boyfriend back home in Cleveland.

It was November, and she was working on a project for her class, The Self-Portrait. The interdisciplinary course pulled apart some of the tricks and props that artists use to represent themselves in literature, art, drama, and Älm. Besides the usual analytic work, the class had an end-of-term creative project.

“ Cool,” replied the boyfriend. “I’m glad that worked out.” “ I hope you don’t mind,” she followed up, “The photos are nude.”

“ Oh no!” he exclaimed. “If someone else sees you nude, what does that say about you?”

In the conÅagration that went up, the boyfriend’s protestation posed a query that was surprisingly pertinent. What others thought, it turned out, became an integral part of the “self” Goldberg tried to portray in her portrait.

“ We wanted the students to experience what it would be like to try and do this thing they’d been analyzing all semester,” explains instructor Catriona MacLeod, an associate professor of Germanic languages and literature. Tina Lu, an assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, and Victoria Coates, Gr’98, a lecturer in art history, co-taught The Self-Portrait with MacLeod.

An avid photographer, Goldberg decided early on to use photos of herself. She posed nude because clothing choices might reveal something of her personality. “You just see a body,” she explains. “You’re not gonna know there’s a real me, an ‘essential self,’ if you just see the outside of me.”

Goldberg, who has “horrible” eyesight, also blurred the images—a montage of body parts—to mimic how the world looks to her when she’s not wearing contacts. Initially she planned to Äll in the background with painted objects that “represent me” and call the work 20/400, the measure of her visual acuity. Then her boyfriend “Åipped out.”

“ No way was I going to compromise my project or artistic vision for him,” she insists, describing the two-hour phone discussion, the tears, the heated back and forth.

After conÄding to her journal the argument with her boyfriend, Goldberg lifted some of the recurring lines she uttered in her defense and used them as a red-over-black grafÄti background for the photographs. “I’m innocent,” plead the red words. “I didn’t mean to.” In black: “such a big deal;” “it’s just a school project;” “it’s art;” “will you still love me?”

In the Äre of feelings, Goldberg found that her self-portrait was “tainted” by this other self, so she called it Tainted by Love. “The whole project was changed because of love,” she elaborates. “My emotions and my project were both tainted by someone close to me.”

If you look closely at a bottom corner of Tainted, in dark-blue lettering obscured by overwritten text, you can make out an “I’m Sorry.”

Goldberg got an A in the course, and her boyfriend still loves her.


Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated August 27, 2004