More Thoughts about Self-portraits

Dr. Ellen, my composition teacher has approved an E-mail interview with you. I am writing from the lovely state of Washington. My questions about photographer self-portraits follow:

QUESTION:  Can we generalize about why photographers take self-portraits, or are the reasons too personal and varied? If yes, what are the generalizations we can draw?

Well, as in any art form, students of photography are very often required to do self-portraits as an experiment in looking at themselves. This is part of the formal training process in many schools of photography in this country and abroad.

Self-portraits are part of the larger communication process that we call photography. Photography is not just about clicking the shutter button, it is a way of being in the world. It is a form of viewing the world, exploring the world, and interacting with the world that reveals, in the process, how the photographer sees that world. Their images, therefore, reveal much about self – their likes, their dislikes, their fears, their politics, their philosophical underpinnings, etc.

In essence, every image made by a photographer is a kind of self-portrait; the more formalized self-portraits merely extend that line of thinking a bit further. In this case, it is an obvious act of self-revelation whereas many photographers fail to see how much self-revelation goes on in all of their photographs on a day-to-day basis.

QUESTION:  Does gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other differences affect the likelihood or reasoning as to why photographers take self-portraits?

All of those things – ethnicity, religious background, sexual orientation, political philosophy – contribute to who that photographer is. Their photographs will reveal those things, as well. The more avant guard and brave new world their philosophy, the more likely it is that they will step out into the limelight and offer up self-portraits as reflections of their innate personhood.

The idea behind doing self-portraits in formal photography training is to focus the individual on who they are – partly to see if they know who they really are – and partly to see how clear thinking they are with regard to self. Many people are not very self-aware and, more than anywhere else, the arts try to awaken in the budding artist a new threshold of self-discovery. Why? Because art flows from the self. The artist’s work is an extension of the self.

As both an experienced mental health professional and photographer, it is always my goal to express self in every possible way. And to teach others to do the same. Self-ful individuals are quite different from self-ish individuals, who are different again from self-less individuals. Where one is along that continuum reflects their trek through life to date, as well as their sense of self in relationship to others around them.

QUESTION: Are “spontaneous” self-portraits possible?

Like looking in a mirror or seeing one’s shadow and then photographing it in the moment? Yes, as a matter of fact, there can be a large degree of spontaneity in self-portraiture.

I discovered an adolescent girl’s work online some years ago, someone who lived in Amsterdam whose self-portraiture was stunning! It was almost shocking, it was so unique and out of the box, and it was so fearless of self-revelation. I lost track of her somehow over the years but I keep thinking that her work will eventually shatter all modern-day notions of good and bad, right and wrong, decent and indecent, etc. in photography, perhaps in the arts as a whole. Art needs BRAVERY to fully express itself.

A fast-moving subject on a motorcycle

If one is spontaneous in life, then one’s photography will also be characterized by spontaneity. The relationship is a pretty straight-forward one. Take the cardboard cutout kind of person who, say, hates to dance and certainly won’t dance in front of others. Do you think of them as being spontaneous? They are not; in fact, they are burdened by a kind of emotional rigidity that causes them to hold back, to withdraw, and sometimes to just plain hide.

Therefore, any self-portraiture from that kind of photographer will surely be far from spontaneous.

QUESTION: I’ve read in several blogs and articles about self-portraiture that all photography is in some way self-portraiture – because what we photograph, how we title our work, how we crop our work, and our own perspective is a reflection of ourselves. If this is true, does our general photography work more honestly and purely reflect who we are?

I think I answered that earlier – yes, absolutely. Even how we drive a car, or respond to highway traffic conditions, is a reflection of self. EVERYTHING we do is a reflection of self. When you sign a letter, you do it with a SELF flair. When you buy clothes, you buy things that tend to reflect your personality whether you are always cognizant of it at the time or not.

I would not go so far as to say that one’s general photography work is any better indicator of self than self-portraiture. The self-portraiture might be more contrived in some ways, but the content and composition of the self-portrait will still be chosen in a way that reflects self.

I would say that the more contrived the self-portrait, the more defensive the photographer.

In my own self-portraits I try to incorporate artifacts from my life that are important to me – which is exactly what I try to do when setting up a portrait of someone else. A photograph of a basketball player far away from the hoops is obviously lacking something integral, wouldn’t you say?

A Self-portrait by Dr. Ellen

QUESTION: Is there some way to look at a self-portrait and determine the intentions of the photographer? (e.g. narcissism)

Narcissism – an interesting word – “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity.” This is a very Freudian term coined by those fascinated with the SELF-ISH or SELF-LESS individual, but it certainly does not characterize the SELF-FUL individual. The self-ful individual would, indeed, scoff at Freud. The self-ful individual celebrates their individuality without harming others in the process, and they also assume responsibility for self that many others actually avoid doing at all cost.

You can tell much about the intentions of others by the range of their behavior. No matter, though, it is still self-reflective, narcissistic or not. We live in a world that too often devalues self and its many forms of expression. The models for self-fulness just aren’t there. And when you run into one you immediately recognize them as being special, unique, solid, and certainly not in a vain way.

QUESTION: Do more advanced photographers have different motives for why they take self-portraits than more amateur photographers?

Student or amateur photographers are humans first with varying degrees of self-fulness. The less self-ful they are, the less likely they are to dabble in self-portraiture. Amateur artists of all kinds are quite reticent to fully express self, fearing criticism from others. Age helps one to overcome such fears, so it would be logical to assert that more advanced photographers have reached a place where they feel braver to do whatever they have to do to express self without inhibition.

QUESTION: What drives the final self portrait of the photographer more: how he or she views him or herself, or how he or she thinks others view him or her?

Other-driven behavior is basically dysfunctional behavior. It is true, occasionally we all bend to the dictates of others, and in some domains of life more than in other domains. We all stop at red traffic lights because – what? – we think we will get a ticket if we don’t? That is not a very self-ful person. To stop at the red light is the right thing to do to protect self and others around us – that reflects is a self-ful individual, someone who is not driven by the dictates of others but rather who is acting in self-responsible ways at all times.

An example: a person who is likely to steal something is likely going to do it when no one is watching. The self-driven person who is not likely to steal, is not going to steal at any time, even when no one is looking.

QUESTION: Does the motive of why the photographer took the self-portrait affect how he or she processes it in image editing software?

Yes, they probably will look at image editing software as yet another means to an end. Does the image directly mirror their own perceived self-image, or does it need some help to do so? The artist will be driven to tweek to the point of self-revelation, whereas the photographer without artistic angst will tweak to project themselves as they want others to see them. These are two very different intentionalities upfront, and yet both may fully utilize the wide-ranging tools of Photoshop.

Actually, way too much attention and time is given over to tweaking images in photoshop. This shifts the focus from the art of photography to the technology of photography. The true artist gets closer to their vision with their raw images than the non-artist does even with their most tweaked masterpiece!

We have some amazing tools at our disposal today and I love all of them. That doesn’t mean that I find them altogether useful, or even important much of the time. There is still the question of who I am and how I am going to self-reveal through my subjects that reveal myself in the act of my photographing them!

QUESTION: How accurately do portraits by other photographers reflect the subject, as opposed to a self-portrait by that subject?

This varies considerably, but there are certainly photographers out there who come very close to revealing the tenacity and passions of others simply because they are so skillful in their own self-observations. The more we know self, the more we can tune into the self-affirmations of others. The empathic person empathizes. The sensitive person is sensitive to others. The hardened, guarded person is defensive of others and sees defensiveness in others. So when that hardened person photographs someone else, whose defensiveness are they actually projecting?

QUESTION: What drives self-portraiture more: narcissism, creative control, or something else?

The definitive answer is “something else” – and that something else is the degree to which the person engaged in self-portraiture has achieved a clear sense of who they are in contrast to those around them. I refer to this as one’s basic level of self-differentiation.

The better question, though, is this: what options are available to us for continued self-revelation? If self-portraiture is one of those options, then why not embrace it just like we would embrace a mirror that tells us just a little more about ourselves than we knew before we peeked?

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