09 April 2007


I've always enjoyed the genre of photographers' self-portraits. They almost always, of necessity, depict the photographer at work doing his or her art (like painters' self-portraits at their easels). And they are almost always at least slightly humorous. You have to do something clever and somewhat amusing to get yourself into a photograph that is taken by a camera whose lens is normally pointing away from you. Some of the newer consumer cameras have remote control gadgets that enable you to place the camera on a tripod and take a picture of yourself that way, but that ruins the fun. There are all kinds of other more interesting ways to take a self-portrait photo. Mirrors, shadows, extreme wide angle lenses, self-timers, holding the camera at arm's length and aiming as best you can (usually cock-eyed), etc. See if you can figure out how I did this one of myself. Spoiler below.

Artists of all genres (including literary) have been fascinated by the self-portrait for centuries. Some of my favorites in the visual arts are the many of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, and the marvellous Triple Self-Portrait of Norman Rockwell. Here are many more examples at ArtLex (a wonderful resource). I'm not sure when the first self-portrait was ever conceived, but God certainly set the stage for self-portraiture by creating humans in his own image.

I remember a Vancouver photographer (whose name escapes me) who did a series of photos where the task he set for himself was to only take one photograph a day, every day, for a whole year, and the only rule was that he had to be in each shot. It was very creative, and ended up documenting some interesting times in his life (like when he broke his leg and was in a cast for a few weeks). He showed the entire exhibit at an open house at his home during the annual "Artists in Our Midst" event in Vancouver a few years ago.

I've just been watching and studying an Alfred Hitchcock film, "I Confess." The great director was famous for putting himself in cameo appearances in all of his films -- often just his rotund silhouette walking across the frame. His reason for doing so (apart from merely giving us a humorous signature), as my film class teacher Bruce Marchfelder explained, was to indicate his complicity in the dark side of humanity that he was portraying in his film.

Artists do self-portraiture for many reasons. There is an excellent web article explaining some of them, "The Exploration of Self: What Artists Find When They Search in the Mirror" (by Jeanne Ivy). Her conclusion is worth quoting in its entirety:

Self-portraits have been a method of self-exploration since humans first gazed at their own reflection in a pool of water. With the invention of the mirror came an even stronger fascination to capture one's likeness. And even within the past ten years, the public's fascination with the way an artist sees him/herself has led to exhibitions like the National Self-Portrait Collection in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Self-portraits, we have found, can be carefully staged to show the audience only what the artist wishes to project, or deeply revealing, inadvertently displaying feelings of anguish and pain. Self-portraits have been used to test new techniques, make a signature mark, launch into self-study, remember the past, and as a way to release emotion. Whichever way artists choose to construct their images, they are each forced to study their own personas both physically and emotionally.

What do artist's find when they search the mirror? For some the self-portrait is cathartic experience, a letting go of pent-up emotions. For others, the process reveals new insights about themselves and their work. For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul.
I am not entirely sure why I do self-portraits, but surely there must be some element of self-exploration in it (that's a common theme in my life). The process of writing this blog post has made me more aware of how frequently I do it and the possible significance. I'll be posting some of my self-portraits in the coming days (though not necessarily revealing to you what they tell me about myself!). The one above is a reflection of myself in a mud puddle, on Galiano Island. Enhanced in Photoshop to accentuate the contrast and add a blue cast to the sky.

If you're so inclined, try taking an interesting self-portrait photo of yourself this week.


Anonymous said...

Did you take this self portrait shooting into a some sort of body of water?

Rosie Perera said...

Yes. Sorry if that was not clear. I mentioned at the end of my first paragraph that there'd be a "spoiler below." (A spoiler is something that gives away the plot of a movie or the answer to a riddle, for example.) That spoiler came in the end of the second to last paragraph: "The [photo] above is a reflection of myself in a mud puddle, on Galiano Island. Enhanced in Photoshop to accentuate the contrast and add a blue cast to the sky."


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