the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Self-Portrait

ESTRANGEMENTS

The author, in a typical moment of consternation.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE OLDER I BECOME, both as a person and as a photographer, I wonder if there truly is any such thing as a “self-portrait”. Of course, I don’t doubt that it’s technically easier than ever to record one’s own image in a photograph. What I do doubt is whether the term portrait is a valid one when applied to oneself. Simply, can we be objective enough to accurately interpret who we are with a camera that we ourselves wield?

Now, bear with me. This isn’t as hippy-dippy as it sounds.

Many of us can recall the first time we heard out recorded voice played back. Its sounded alien, untrue, outside ourselves, even abstract. Similarly, we have also disparaged other people’s attempts to “capture” us in a photograph, dismissing their efforts with “that doesn’t even look like me!” Does this mean that the other person’s camera somehow transformed us into a distortion of ourselves?  Or is it, rather, that we have an imperfect concept of what our actual appearance really is? But….okay, let’s suppose for a moment that everyone else in the world that takes our photo somehow doesn’t “get” us, that we, out of our vast knowledge of our own hearts and minds, are, in fact, the only person qualified to reveal ourselves in a photograph. All right, that being our theory, what are the real results of our having, especially in the current age, almost unlimited “do-overs” to get our pictures of ourselves “just right”?

After all, as much sheer practice as we have taking images of ourselves (and it is some real tonnage, folks), we should have reached some plateau of proficiency, some perfecting of process for telling our true story. But have we? Are you satisfied that your best, most authentic self resides in a picture that you yourself have taken? I know that, in my own case, I can only confirm that I have gotten better at producing a version of myself that I choose to represent me to the world. I have crafted a performance out of my own talent as a photographer that shows me in the most flattering light, portraying me, by turns, as thoughtful, funny, courageous, resilient, and whatever other recipe of herbs and spices flatter me most. But have any of these performances qualified as “portraits”? I can’t answer that question with complete confidence….and neither, I suspect, can many of you.

So is the “self-portrait” destined to be a beautifully concocted lie? Well, to a degree, yes, always. Those of us who apply an unflinching and honest eye to our own shortcomings and biases may occasionally approach the truth in the way we present ourselves to our own cameras. And a few of us will even achieve a kind of angelic honesty. And it will always, always be easy to have the whole process collapse in self-parody. But the point is this: given the sheer volume of “selfie” traffic loose in the modern world, we should at least try to break through our estrangements, our protective layers. A photograph can certainly be seductive even when it’s a lie. Sometimes because it’s a lie. But from time to time, it’s nice to take a gut check and see if we recall what the truth looks like as well.

 


I’VE JUST SEEN A FACE

Am I this person? Do I know this guy? Am I getting him "right"?

Am I this person? Do I know this guy? Am I getting him “right”?

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

…..through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing…..blind with the beggar’s mind, he is but a stranger to himself –Winwood/Capaldi

GRINNING, FRIENDLY LIARS: that’s what most of us are when offering up a socially amenable mask for public conception as a photographic portrait. It’s the facial equivalent of “putting your best foot forward”, an official version of someone who possesses our features but is as different from our selves as, to quote Twain, lighting is from the lightning bug. So who should know that genuine person better,  or can capture its reality more accurately than we ourselves? Right?

Or not.

We (the ultimate authority on us), are usually among the least trustworthy of narrators on our favorite subject. Many a memoir is merely a selective reconstruction of one’s past, leaking credibility at every seam. So why should our photographic self-portraits be any more reliable? We believe that we can reveal things outsiders can’t see, that our “real” face can only be shown by our own hand….that the others don’t really “get” us. But what actually happens with the insane new flood of selfies washing over the digital shores is that we merely substitute one “correct” face…the one we give to other photographers…for another, no less crafted, no less artificial. We are still trying to concoct an image that we feel is fit for public consumption. And we invariably fail.

This is hardly a new trap. Photographers have been trying to tell their own facial stories for over two centuries, sure that their interpretation of their secret selves will succeed where other chroniclers fall short. But the best self-portraits are still abstractions, momentary samples of our personality, never the personality in full. Ironically, we might make pictures of our selves that we prefer over those others make of us. Perhaps they are technically better, more deliberate, more flattering, and so forth. And maybe we like the selves we shoot better because they actually conceal what we want to remain hidden, whereas the stranger’s eye is, in fact, too penetrating for our comfort.

Contemporary solutions to this legendary conundrum know no limit. Every shooter has his or her own approach to a statement of self in an image, with some choosing to deliberately camouflage or hide themselves, and other concocting very formalized creations that mock the idea of recognition while seeming to be “real”. In Jackie Higgins’ wonderful book on alternative techniques Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, she argues that “faces rarely reflect the inner workings of minds”, suggesting that “there is no such thing as the unified self.” The take-home: you can’t get it right, this business of knowing and showing your own face. Does that mean the quest is unattainable? Sure.

Or not.

 


THE UNRESOLVED RIDDLE

I can't really say I know this guy, at least not yet.

I can’t really say I know this guy, at least not yet.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A RECENT PIECE BY TIMOTHY EGAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES decried the latest innovation in Instagram etiquette, a device called a “selfie stick”. As the name implies, the stick is designed to hold one’s smartphone at a modest distance from its subject (me!) allowing oneself to be better framed against larger scenes, such as landscapes, local sights, etc. Egan mostly ranted against the additional invasion of public peace by armies of narcissistic simps who couldn’t be persuaded to merely be in the moment, unless they could also be in the picture. It struck him as a fresh assault on “real”  experience, another example, as if we needed one, of our sadly self-absorbed age.

I agree with most of Egan’s epistle, but I think the real tragedy is that the selfie stick allows us to take more, more, more pictures, and reveal less, less, less of the people that we truly are. Selfies are more than emotionally stunted; most of them are also lies, or, more properly, masks. They are not “portraits” any more than they are steam shovels, as they merely replicate our favorite way of distancing ourselves from discovery… the patented camera smile. Frame after frame, day after endless day, the tselfie tsunami pushes any genuine depiction of humanity farther away, substituting toothpaste grins for authentic faces. Photographs can plumb the depths of the spirit, or they can put up an impenetrable barrier to its discovery, like the endless string of  forced “I was here” shots that we now endure in every public place.

There’s a reason that the best portraits begin with not one lucky snap but dozens of “maybes”, as  subject and photographer perform a kind of dance with each other, a slow wrestling match between artifice and exposition. Let’s be clear: just because it is easier,mechanically, to capture some kind of image of ourselves doesn’t mean we are getting any closer to the people we camouflage beneath carefully crafted personae. Indeed, if a person who acts as his own lawyer “has a fool for a client”, then most of us have a liar in charge of telling the truth about ourselves. Merely larding on additional technology (say, a stick on a selfie) just allows a larger portion of our false selves to fit into the picture, while the puzzle of who that person is, smirking into the camera, remains, all too often, an unresolved riddle.

 


PASS GO, COLLECT $200

The Birthday Boy, February, 2014. 1/10 sec., f/5.6, ISO 200, 18mm.

The Birthday Boy, February, 2014. 1/10 sec., f/5.6, ISO 200, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BIRTHDAYS HAVE BECOME SOMETHING OF A CONUNDRUM AT MY AGE. The annual ritual of looking yourself over, and thereby taking some kind of critical inventory of personality debits and credits, has become a little like finding an old favorite shirt in a drawer. On one hand, it’s horribly out of fashion, and may not fit so well anymore. On the other hand, you had some great times in it, and it was really well made….I mean look at the quality in the fabric…….

And so, after a few loving looks, back in the drawer it goes.

There are so many yardsticks to apply to a life, so many ways to mark distance run. You can produce either smiles or sighs with any of them. Of course, I’d like to weigh less. Of course, I’d like to know more. And when it comes to photography, of course I’d like to be able to invoke a thirty-year mortality extension clause, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d eventually learn to see as I should, before shuffling off to The Undiscovered Country.

In recent years, I’ve used self-portraits as some kind of mile marker on myself, either as an index of technique, or maybe just a detailed document of wear and tear. It’s somewhat related to the annual torture that used to be School Picture Day, except that there’s no creepy guy to give me a lame nickname and hand me a plastic pocket comb. Another key difference is that I can keep shooting until my eyes are open and my cowlick behaves.

So, anyway, tomorrow, I’ll waddle my way past “GO” and collect my $200. Someone will once again stick something with a lit candle in front of me, and, once again, I will experience that  all too human mix between gratitude and regret that makes humanity the ultimate sweet-and-sour entrée. I’ve been around from Brownies to Instamatics to Polaroids to iPhones, and it’s been a privilege to behold it all. And, if I’ve produced even one visual document to suggest to anyone else how marvelously grand the world is, then it’s been a pretty good run. It’s nice to be around.

Hey, did they take taxes out of this $200????


BRIGHT SMILING LIES

Double Me Patio

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY HAS PRETTY MUCH INHERITED ITS CONCEPTION OF PORTRAITURE FROM THE TRADITIONS OF PAINTING. A portrait, to us, is something done on purpose, with purpose, deliberation, a plan. There is at least an attempt on the part of the photographer to strip away the studied facades of the modern world and reveal something of the real person within. And there is ample evidence that you can come compellingly close to doing just that.

Turn the camera around toward ourselves, however, and we all become liars. Bright, smiling liars.

This is not a burn per se on the current pandemic of “selfies” that litter the internet like crushed beer cans along the highway, although many of them deserve to be burned because they are banal or technically inept. No, the self-portrait process itself, cool camera or cheapie, invites deception, the creation of a mask designed only for public consumption. It is a license to hide.

Can anyone be so self-aware or confident that they are able (or willing) to present something raw and unvarnished for a camera lens in the same way we would seek that authenticity from another subject? Or will we come to the camera as if to the edge of a stage, our makeup and “serious” aspect pasted on for a performance?

Back for a moment to the tselfie tsunami of our current era, it’s easy to see this torrent of poses as play-acting, images that actually prevent us from understanding or knowing each other. You have to ask, at some point, is this how this person sees himself?  Far from inviting the viewer deeper inside, selfies act as digital “Do Not Disturb” signs that, in fact, discourage discovery. And yet, let’s not let our brethren with tripods, studio lighting and stern demeanours escape blame, either, as their work can be just as riddled with artifice as any quickie-in-the-mirror Instagram. It’s said that people who act as their own lawyers have fools for clients, and the same holds for anyone who takes his own picture.

This is not necessarily cause for despair. All of photography is, after all, an interpretation of reality, not a representation of it. We don’t discount black & white simply because it doesn’t show the world “as it is”, nor do we rule out the “truth” of pictures made from a host of other techniques that are all, certainly interpretive in nature. So the self-portrait will always be a tough nut to crack.

There is nothing more penetrating than the idea of a camera. But, in the carapace we construct around our all-too-secret souls, it may have met its match.


NOTHING IS REVEALED

Julia Margaret Cameron, 19th-century self-portrait pioneer, currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 19th-century self-portrait pioneer, currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE LINES IN ALL OF BOB DYLAN’S PRODIGIOUS OUTPUT, coming from The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, on the John Wesley Harding album. I often pop the phrase into casual conversations where it’s clear that more heat, rather than light, has been generated. Nothing to see here, folks. No new ground has been broken. No fresh truth has been unearthed.

Nothing is revealed.

This phrase came back to me a while back when looking at the raw statistics for Instagram, which indicates that, currently, over 90,000,000 images on the foto-share service currently bear the hashtag “#me”. Call them selfies, call them an epidemic of narcissism, call them banal.

But don’t, for the love of God, call them portraits.  

How has it come to this? How can merely pointing a phone camera back at your own punim, and saturating it with distortion and over-amped flash, pass for a telling testament to who you are, what you dream, what you represent in the world?

Of course, the tselfie tsunami does none of these things. It actually puts distance, if not actual barriers, between your real self and the world, by creating some lifeless avatar to ward off true discovery of yourself by, well, anyone. By comparison, even the four-for-a-quarter snaps of antique photo booths are searing documents of truth.

Photography’s evolution is illuminated by the great masters who stepped in front of their own cameras

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait Of Alfred Lord Tennyson

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait Of Alfred Lord Tennyson

to try to give testimony, recording innovative, penetrating evidence of who they were. Currently, a show featuring one of the medium’s greatest pioneers in this area, Julia Margaret Cameron, is packing them in at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with good reason. Cameron’s attempts to capture herself in not only natural but fantastic settings led the way for interpretive portraitists from Richard Avedon to Annie Liebowitz. Along the way, she learned what to look for, and immortalize, in the faces of others, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, and other bright lights of the 19th century.

Oddly, none of her work was done by crooking her arm 90 degrees back toward her booze-flushed face at a kegger and saying “cheese.”

I’ve written before, in these pages, of the real value of self-portraits as a teaching tool and experimental lab for photographic technique. By contrast, “Selfies” are false faces created to keep the world away, not invite it in. And they remind us, courtesy of Bobby D., of the three worse words of insult that can ever be aimed at any photograph, anywhere:

Nothing is revealed. 

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


FLATTERY WILL GET YOU NOWHERE

My beautiful mother, well past 21 but curator of a remarkable face. Window light softens, but does not erase the textures of her features. 1/60 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200. 18mm.

My beautiful mother, well past 21 but curator of a remarkable face. Window light softens, but does not erase, the textures of her features. 1/60 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200. 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DEPICTION OF THE FACES OF THOSE WE LOVE IS AMONG THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY. Since the beginning of the medium, thoughts on how to capture them “best” clearly fall into two opposing camps. In one corner, the feeling that we must idealize, glamorize, venerate the features of those most special in our lives. In the other corner, the belief that we should capture faces as effects of time and space, that is, record them, without seeking to impose standards of grace or beauty on what is in front of the lens. This leads us to see faces as objects among other objects.

The first, more cosmetic view of faces, which calls for ideal lighting, a flattering composition, a little “sweetening” in the taking, will always be the more popular view, and its resultant images will always be cherished for emotionally legitimate reasons. The second view is, let’s “face” it, a hard sell. You have to be ready for a set series of responses from your subjects, usually including:

Don’t take me. I just got up.

God, I look so old. Delete that.

I hate having my picture taken.

That doesn’t even look like me.

Of course, since no one is truly aware of what they “look like”, there is always an element of terror in having a “no frills” portrait taken. God help me, maybe I really do look like that. And most of us don’t want to push to get through people’s defenses. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And, in this photo-saturated world, it’s a major trick to get people to drop their instinctive masks, even if they want to.

Still.

As I visually measure the advance of age on my living parents (both 80+ ) and have enough etchings on my own features to mirror theirs, I am keener than ever to avoid limiting my images of us all to mere prettiness. I am particularly inspired by photographers who actually entered into a kind of understanding with their closest life partners to make a sort of document out of time’s effects. Two extreme examples: Richard Avedon’s father and Annie Leibovitz’ partner Susan Sontag were both documented in their losing battles with age and disease as willing participants in a very special relationship with very special photographers….arrangements which certainly are out of the question for many of us. And yet, there is so much to be gained by making a testament of sorts out of even simple snaps. This was an important face in my life, the image can say, and here is how it looked, having survived more than 3/4 of a century. Such portraits are not to be considered “right” or “wrong” against more conventional pictures, but they should be at least a part of the way we mark human lives.

Don't forget to document the effects of time on your own face. f/1.8, 35mm.

Don’t forget to document the effects of time on your own face.  1/160 sec.,  f/1.8, ISO 200, 35mm.

Everyone has to decide their own comfort zone, and how far it can be extended. But I think we have to stretch a bit. Pictures of essentially beautiful people who, at the moment the shutter snaps, haven’t done up their hair, put on their makeup, or conveniently lost forty pounds. People in less than perfect light, but with features which have eloquent statements and truths writ large in their every line and crevice. We should also practice on ourselves, since our faces are important to other people, and ours, like theirs, are going to go away someday.

In trying to record these statements and truths, mere flattery will get us nowhere. The camera has an eye to see; let’s take off the rose-colored filter, at least for a few frames.


SMILE! OR NOT.

Since we’re usually unhappy with the way others capture us, we have nothing to lose by a making a deliberate effort to come closer to the mark ourselves. Self-portraits are more than mere vanity; they can become as legitimate a record of our identities as our most intimate journals.  1/15 sec., f/7.1, ISO 250, 24mm.

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A COMMONLY HELD VIEW OF SELF-PORTRAITURE  is that it epitomizes some kind of runaway egotism, an artless symbol of a culture saturated in narcissistic navel-gazing. I mean, how can “us-taking-a-picture-of-us” qualify as anything aesthetically valid or “pure”? Indeed, if you look at the raw volume of quickie arm’s length shots that comprise the bulk of self-portrait work, i.e., here’s me at the mountains, here’s me at the beach, etc., it’s hard to argue that anything of our essence is revealed by the process of simply cramming our features onto a view screen and clicking away…..not to mention the banality of sharing each and every one of these captures ad nauseum on any public forum available. If this is egotism, it’s a damned poor brand of it. If you’re going to glorify yourself, why not choose the deluxe treatment over the economy class?

I would argue that self-portraits can be some of the most compelling images created in photography, but they must go beyond merely recording that we were here or there, or had lunch with this one or that one. Just as nearly everyone has one remarkable book inside them, all of us privately harbor a version of ourselves that all conventional methods of capture fail to detect, a visual story only we ourselves can tell. However, we typically carry ourselves through the world shielded by a carapace of our own construction, a social armor which is designed to keep invaders out, not invite viewers in. This causes cameras to actually aid in our camouflage, since they are so easy to lie to, and we have become so self-consciously expert at providing the lies.

The portraits of the famous by Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and other all-seeing eyes (see links to articles below) have struck us because they have managed to penetrate the carapace, to change the context of their subjects in such dramatic ways that they convince us that we are seeing them, truly seeing them, for the first time. They may only be doing their own “take” on a notable face, but this only makes us hunger after more interpretations on the theme, not fewer. Key to many of the best portraits is the location of their subjects within specific spaces to see how they and the spaces feed off each other. Sometimes the addition of a specific object or prop creates a jumping off point to a new view. Often a simple reassignment of expression (the clown as tragedian, the adult as child, etc) forces a fresh perspective.

As for the self-portrait, an artistic assignment that I feel everyone should perform at least once (as an intentional design, not a candid snap), there is a wealth of new information gleaned from even an indifferent result. Shooters can act as lab rats for all the ways of seeing people that we can think of to play at, serving as free training modules for light, exposure, composition, form. I am always reluctant to enter into these projects, because like everyone else, I  balk at the idea of centering my expression on myself. Who, says my Catholic upbringing, do I think I am, that I might be a fit subject for a photograph? And what do I do with all the social conditioning that compels me to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and smile in a friendly manner?

One can only wonder what the great figures of earlier centuries might have chosen to pass along about themselves if the self-portrait has existed for them as it does for us. What could the souls of a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Spinoza, an Aquinas, have said to us across the gulf of time? Would this kind of introspection been seen by them as a legacy or an exercise in vanity? And would it matter?

In the above shot, taken in a flurry of attempts a few days ago, I am seemingly not “present” at the proceedings, apparently lost in thought instead of engaging the camera. Actually, given the recent events in my life, this was the one take where I felt I was free of the constraints of smiling, posing, going for the shot, etc.  I look like I can’t focus, but in catching me in the attempt to focus, this image might be the only real one in the batch. Or not. I may be acting the part of the tortured soul  because I like the look of it. The point is, at this moment, I have chosen what to depict about myself. Accept or reject it, it’s my statement, and my attempt to use this platform to say something, on purpose. You and I can argue about whether I succeeded, but maybe that’s all art is, anyway.

Thoughts?