Birthday portrait, 2/8/22
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I use myself as an experimental photographic subject. It’s not that I’m particularly keen on selfies: in fact, even tiptoeing into that mental mode is a little bewildering to me. However, unlike the rest of the world, I am always “on hand” and so, when I get a notion about composition, lighting, etc., as regards the human face, I become my own lab rat. However, in most cases, the results are merely instructive: that is, I am not seeing any new truths revealed in my face. I mean, I know myself, but I don’t know myself.
It gives me a headache.
I go a little further with all this foolery once a year, on my birthday, almost as a kind of guilt-ridden homework assignment. I try to set things up on purpose, to come as close to studio-level standards of control and strategy as possible. For some reason, I feel like I should make the attempt to take the measure of time’s ravages, or at least re-visit how I feel while living inside my face versus how that face advertises me to the world. I don’t know what will work or not work year-to-year, or even frame-to-frame. What they say about a lawyer representing himself having a fool for a client certainly applies to self-portraiture as well. Is this the real me, or a “me” that I’m sculpting for public consumption, a me that I approve of as a marketable mask?
There are other questions. If I am regularly in the business of making pictures, then I obviously do not accept the world on its own terms. That is, I massage what I find until I like it. Won’t that kind of creatively built-in fakery necessarily color the results of any depiction I create of myself? Do I even want a completely honest, unfiltered version of me? Does anyone else?
It’s often said that we are all the heroes of our own story, and so I suspect that my self-portraits are at least as untrustworthy as any other tale I choose to tell with a camera, a kind of inward fan fiction. Here’s me at my best, or my most protected, or my most skillfully manipulated. Anyone buying?
It gives me a headache.
CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS YOU READ THIS, I WILL BE SAILING ACROSS YET ANOTHER ANNUAL MERIDIAN, my shaky little rowboat meekly tying up at the dock of one more birthday. Many years, I am astonished to find the scruffy little skiff of my life still afloat: it’s certainly not due to my skills as a navigator or seaman, but rather the kind fortune of the currents, the gentle mercy of the waves. Life is an ocean which can and does engulf us all, sometimes in a series of undulations, sometimes in surges of anger. But eventually we all head to the same damp destiny. Chalking up one more year on the topside of the foam doesn’t create a feeling of relief so much as a tsunami of amazement.
In years past, like many of us, I have indulged my vanity by taking at least a quick-snap selfie to mark the occasion, as if my continuing to draw breath was, in itself, some kind of achievement. Of course, in my quieter moments, I realize that I am, in the main, merely a lucky idiot, far more fortunate than smart. But, when I consider the role my wife Marian has played in my ongoing survival…..well, then, I am looking at a kind of genius, an emotional genius that has done more than merely protect and value me. Better than knowing my worse flaws, she has systematically outfoxed them at every turn. And in doing that, she has not only bought me time, she has made that time burn brighter than any birthday candle.
And so, this year, I’m giving the back-patting selfie a rest, and filing this small report with an image of her that, over the years, has given me courage and comfort. On one level, it’s merely a woman looking out to sea. For me, however, it’s the nature of that looking, and the deep concentration that goes with it. Marian never just glances: she evaluates, she catalogues hopes and fears: she shuffles the cards of a million scenarios and masterminds the selection of the perfect hand. As I said, a kind of genius.
So Happy My Birthday to Marian, my Magellan, my compass, my north star. Without her, I’d be lucky to read the map of my own mind. With her, I can journey on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE NO PART OF PRESENT–DAY PHOTOGRAPHY that is more practiced and less understood than the humble self-portrait. This has not always been the case. Turning the lens on oneself was a much less common act until the arrival of mobile phones, at which time the somewhat awkward old technique of setting a timer and jumping into the picture was supplanted by an act that was at once instantaneous and effortless. Ironically, at that point, the sheer numerical proliferation of the selfie overwhelmed the artistic fact that many of us weren’t doing them very well.
The modern selfie has been degraded largely because any variance from the same banal fill-the-entire-frame-with-your-face approach is so rare. We get plenty of features and not much context, a condition that could be called TLI, or Too Little Information. Worse, selfies in the iPhone era are limited mostly to what framing is permitted by the length of the shooter’s arm, causing any surrounding people, places or events to be eclipsed from the shot, rendering an image of “me at the canyon” maddeningly identical to one of “me in front of the cathedral.” Add the distortion of near objects inherent in the wide-angle lenses of many mobiles, and too many selfies conceal or mutate more than they reveal. And don’t get me started on the effects of on-board flash. In short, who are these bloated ghosts?
A portrait is more than a mere record of one’s features. The self is also defined by its surroundings, with the accompanying props of one’s life anchoring that person in an era and providing scale, the staging needed for a complete narrative. Can the face alone sufficiently “sell” one’s story? In the hands of the right shooter, absolutely.But riff through a few hundred online selfies and see how often you behold such gems.
In all too many self-portraits, we mostly settle for mere volume, for blurred and puffy smears of ourselves instead of insights. And, as is often the case when taking pictures is so incredibly easy, we fail to plan. This isn’t vanity, but self-sabotage. The self-portrait needs to slow down, to once more become something of a special occasion.
More information, please..
THE SHIFTING VEIL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS AND MAGICIANS SHARE A COMMON POWER, in that both of them selectively practice the art of concealment. Now you see it, now you don’t. Both the shooter and the shaman, in their own ways, know the importance of the slow reveal, the smooth manipulation of the viewer’s concept of reality. Best of all, they know how to choreograph and stage visual information. Here, they insist. Look here.
In a lifetime of studying portrait photographers, I have been fascinated by the nearly endless variety of approaches used to convey the human personality/soul in a static image. There are the formal studio sittings. There are the street ambushes of the paparazzo. And there are the shadowy, soft, gently suggestive pictures in which the classic representation of a “face” may not occur at all. This is the blending of revelation and mystery, and it is where portraits, at least for me, genuinely aspire to art.
Some of my favorite images in this area were Edward Steichen’s studies with the sculpture Auguste Rodin, dark, smeary pieces of pure mood in which the great man was reduced to a near silhouette, as if he and his sculptures were forged out of the same raw material. I learn next to nothing of Rodin’s face from these pictures, and yet I learn worlds about his spirit. Steichen reveals as he conceals.
Which gives me an idea.
As I skim through the daily global tsunami of selfies, many of them simple grinning headshots, I see an incredible opportunity to start a completely new dialogue on what constitutes a portrait….or even a face. That opportunity will be squandered if 99% of selfies only look like slightly happier passport photos, rather than a real growth medium for investigating the self, for using the face as a compositional accent, an arranged object within a larger design.
Why selfies? Because the subject is always available. Because the technology of both mobile phones and conventional cameras allows for faster and more far-reaching experimentation. And because re-framing a subject you think you know intimately, merely by shifting where the veil lifts or falls, can be the difference between conceal and reveal.
THE UNRESOLVED RIDDLE
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.
NOTHING IS REVEALED
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)