REFRAMING THE INFINITE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SMARTPHONE–ERA SELFIE, which may comprise the biggest single category in amateur photography, may actually be the worst thing to happen to portraiture since the invention of the flashgun. Make a qualitative pie chart of the general yield. Many are technical misfires which should have been deleted but were not: more are uniformly safe, conforming to an unspoken set of rules on how much of one’s face to crowd into the frame or how “natural” a smile to effect: nearly all fall short of potraiture’s main mission, which is to interpretively reveal new features or new flavors of a familiar subject. The problem with the selfie, finally, is that it’s too important to be entrusted to, well, yourself.
Mainly, it’s a matter of objectivity. Simply, when it comes to evaluating our own faces, we have none. We are untrustworthy narrators. Now, certainly, it sounds counter-intuitive to suggest that others (with cameras!) can know something more of our faces, and what lies behind them, than we ourselves. But we actually only “know” two things about our own surface features: what we believe we look like and what we want to look like. Neither kind of nebulous “knowledge” leads to either accuracy or innovation in the making of a portrait.
The answer: outsource the job. For yourself, find someone you trust (not necessarily love) to interpret your face. The evaluative distance gained by reframing your own idea of yourself through others’ eyes far outweighs any minor injury to your vanity. And for others, be that other set of eyes. Of course, as always, these observations are rooted in my own experience, but, really, what else is photography about, anyhow?
To clarify: my wife is a great muse for me, since interpreting her face is an exercise in what I call “reframing the infinite”. Simply put, she is a subject I cannot exhaust, whereas, in self-portraiture, she’s instinctively hemmed in by the what-I-think-I-look-like/what-I-want- to-look-like trap. I can simply see things that she cannot, even though (and this cannot be repeated enough), I’m not even that good.
We’ve all reacted to many a self-portrait with a response that sounds something like get over yourself. However, the precise prescriptive might instead be “get OUTSIDE yourself”. Don’t assume that you’re the lucky, lone photographer born without a blind spot, a perceptual dead zone that includes knowing What’s Best About Your Own Face. Unilaterally banish the selfie? Nope. But ask lots of tough questions.
Especially of yourself.