In her ninety self-portraits, Josefina Oliver brings together a number of ‘other-masks’.
A wave breaks inside her, again and again, acknowledging her own self. This action is reinforced in her personal Diary all along 64 years, as well as in her autobiography entitled ‘I’ 1949.
After her sister Catalina´s wedding in 1902, she has a lot of time for herself because her father, apart from working, devotes his time to managing two clubs and the family farm.
Josefina who photographs with commitment since 1899, gets her best self-portraits.
In some of them she shows her most bourgeois and ladylike side; in others, she copies the typical Spaniard. ‘I put it on to see how I looked like in it’ she writes when portraying herself with her sister´s wedding dress; or she wants to see herself as a man, with a moustache and a beret. Humour prevails in the use of the eye mask; the characterization as ‘young woman’ or the colourful and lively carnival shots.
She gets close to surrealism when cutting one of her portraits and beheading her own self.
In her time, the middle or upper class woman is very limited and restricted, with demands such as never walking alone in the streets; or always being accompanied by a man at night. Hopefully, she holds some basic scholarship; however, she lacks access to studies or jobs. Marriage and children are the only goals in life.
‘What ruins you is your own ideas… though you say nothing, those ideas are seen over your clothes’ Delfina Bunge´s mother used to say to her, six years younger than Josefina.
It is inappropriate the wish to overstep the family circle or the social environment towards the public. As a writer she can only devote herself to melodramatic novels, personal diaries or lyric poetry, but not to essays or novels where she would appear fatuous, ridiculous.
This leads many women of letters in the world to use male pseudonyms to protect their work. George Sand, the Brontë sisters, Eduarda Mansilla, Fernan Caballero, Colette.
Josefina keeps her personal diary within these Victorian canons. But at the same time, she discovers the language of Photography which allows her to express wordlessly and evade, through that crack, the severity she has to live.
In that space she creates a whole own world which she illuminates with wonderful colours, though photography at that time had only been sepia or black and white.
She turns her bedroom into a studio for her self-portraits and family and friends takes. There she stages to photograph, drawing lines on everything: clothing, props, light, characters, attaining an environment in which the photographed respond in a relaxed way.
Though sometimes her sister or the maid press her camera shutter button, the entire shot belongs to Josefina, actress at times and always the author of her stagings.
For the photography historian Abel Alexander, ‘Josefina wants to be her own protagonist in the dark room; and develops, copies and when the technique says to her: ‘you can get up to this extend’, she trespasses that limit illuminating: a woman ahead of her time, who breaks the schemes’.