Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thoughts on Self-Portraiture

   More so than a look in the mirror, a look at myself through my camera shows me what I do not automatically see about myself.  For the last 165 days, I have been photographing myself daily.  The plan is to continue for an entire year, culminating on my 50th birthday in November.  Before I began this project, I rarely went in front of the camera.  I never liked how I looked in photographs, even though I was relatively content with what I saw in the mirror.  I'm not even sure why the idea took hold of me so strongly when I first came across it.

   There are many facets to my interest in self-portraiture.  The first is simply an interest in portraiture itself.  Having a willing model makes all the difference.  I have exactly as much patience to model as I do to take the picture, and I have already set aside the time.  The collaboration between actor and director is quite close, the communication good, and the intentions agreeable.  It is comfortable to work with myself and eliminates any anxiety about imposing on other people.

   Once I get behind the camera, and before it, the question of intention does arise.  What do I want to do here?  There is the overall intention behind the entire project and the immediate intention of each particular photo.  If I only wanted to try out portraiture, I wouldn't need to do it every day.  If I wanted to master it, one year and one subject would hardly be enough.  The intention to do this kind of project is naturally a personal one.  The point of portraiture is to portray intrinsic qualities of the subject, whether they are purely visual, intimately expressive, or something in between.

   The quality that came to mind as a launching point is age.  Fifty years of it.  Middle age.  The socio-political, cultural and biological implications are extensive, enough to have larded my mind with unattractively weighty fears of diminishing value.  I have heard that women over fifty become invisible and find that an unpleasant prospect.  In part, this project is a protest against that idea, an effort to keep myself visible despite my age.

   What does it mean to be visible?  That all depends on who is doing the seeing.  Since I am the one behind the camera, and, more importantly, behind the processing and posting, I am the one doing the seeing.  I observe myself as a subject when I plan each shot, and I observe how I look in them when I make the myriad choices that happen between the first shutter click to a finished portrait.  I also observe my responses to what I see and how that shapes each photo shoot.

   Unlike photos other people take of me, my self-portraits show what I like about myself visually. For every portrait I have done this year, there were out-takes by the dozens, sometimes a hundred or more.  The technical difficulty of focusing, framing, and lighting a subject that isn't seen through the viewfinder accounts for most of those out-takes.  The rest are pure redundance.  Modeling gives opportunity for improvisation, and I will blithely click away as I move in front of the camera, sometimes making only minor changes to the tilt of my head or the expression on my face.  By the time I get to the processing stage, I usually have a lot to choose from, though not always anything I like.  The fun of digital photography is that it is exceedingly malleable.  I use a basic photo processing program, not having taken the time to initiate myself in the profundities of Photoshop or Lightroom, and even those limited options are enough to salvage disappointing images.

   My portraits are more than a visual display.  Assembled together, they become a documentary of my year.  My thoughts, moods, environments, activities, and circumstances show up each day in pictures.  Besides the few words or sentences of explanation that I tag them with, they speak for themselves.  I can see themes recurring, patterns within the flow that illustrate qualities I recognize within myself.  Because I have made a concentrated effort to portray them, sometimes by plan but mostly by serendipitous improvisation, I feel more closely identified with them.  Looking at each finished portrait gives me a satisfying affirmation that I do contain those things that I want to show.

   I don't consider the photo editing a falsification of evidence.  I know I don't look as perfect as I can make a photo look.  That isn't the point.  What is fulfilling is the looking and the seeing, the discovery of beauty or interest within the very familiar contours of my face, body or life.  I am creating my own aesthetic with this process, and the finished work that I present does not have to represent me as is, or me as I would like to be, but me as I can see myself.  The quality of projected imagination holds far more interest for me than untouched realism does.  If anything, my aesthetic says more about me than anything I could show on the fluid transience that is my face.  Within my artistic choices lies the story of my maturity.

(view the whole project here)

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