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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, One of Photography’s Early Masters, on Display at the Met (muirhousepubs.wordpress.com)
- Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography? (bigthink.com)