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.