Some of the most iconic self-portraits is the work of painters who celebrated, in one way of another, their own individualism.
The self portrait is a difficult work to get right. Who can really say how they look at any particular time in life?
We take it for granted that we have the right to choose our own identities. This allows us to look around and try out different personas as we grow and mature in life.
Rembrandt painted many self portraits throughout his life. This has left us with a knowledge of how he appeared at the different stages of life, and gives us a feeling of being alongside him as he mature from a young painter into a middle-aged man, who then dealt with the onset of ageing into a greying man with wrinkles and tired eyes.
I took the above self-portrait in one of those moments when it occurred to me that I’d simply like to take a photo. So, I decided that I’d get my camera a take a shot that would give me something to think about. A basic idea that I could get deeper into.
I like to take test shots that give me food for thought. I can work on something that has good content but needs improvement in photos.
To have a rough shot, taken quickly, can help you develop the idea into a much more rewarding self-portrait.
I’m only guessing, but I believe that the only available light was a desk lamp behind me, and a small lamp across the room. The camera was already mounted on a tripod, so I quickly set the camera up in front of myself, and using autofocus, I took the self-portrait. The result is spontaneous, but too dark; I adjusted the light and darkness to get something of the details into the photo, while at the same time I exposed the problems of lack of proper lighting. It’s a shot about composition and the moment. And as I said, I can use it to think more deeply about what I was trying to get at.
When we take portrait shots, we are trying to “get at something”. The mistake for many photographers, and painters, is to believe that they can capture some aspect of the psychology of a person. This nonsense. It’s not physically possible. We can capture the expression of a person’s nature.
We are looking for gestures, expressions in the face – however subtle they are – to find the details of a person.
People change. They wear masks to get through the day. Mask wearing humans doesn’t mean that they are being fake or false, it means that we do what’s necessary to present ourselves accordingly when slotting into a situation that requires a certain personality.
It’s times of stress when the deeper components of personality come to the fore.
The first photograph, a self-portrait of me playing the guitar, was also spontaneous. I was thinking about photography, it was dark outside, and I wanted to do something positive – what better than take a photo. So, I set up a chair outside the bathroom door and played my guitar for a few minutes. Something that can easily turn into hours, if I’m not careful.
I then decided to take a shot of myself without a speed light, nor using any special lighting at all. So I went with a long shutter speed of 5′ seconds just to see how I should adjust up or down on the shutter. 4 seconds shutter speed did the job. This meant that there was no over exposure – which can easily happen when you get too dial-happy with the long shutter speeds – the bathroom light, and room light in front created a source of light that supported the shadows and allowed the forms of the chair and door frames to become well defined.
I’m all about content. That means what’s in a photo is what makes it important. There are a lot of photographers who snap shoot hundreds of shots daily, then sift through to find the one or two happy-accident shots that are worth looking at. I find that if I’m thinking about images, I’ll come up with a motif that appeals to me, then motivates me to try it out. It’s not always possible to find my motif when it’s a part of my imagination at first. A self-portrait is an excellent way of having something to experiment with and photograph at any time of the day or night.
with self portrait photography, you will always have a model on hand, ready and willing to get into the most creative situations to produce some of your best photographic work.
Photograph above, self portrait of myself sitting on the Berlin Ubahn. I spent half a day walking around the city taking street shots of all types of characters and objects. It was the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, so the streets were eerily quiet – and annoyingly empty – seeing a group of people walking closely together on the street was rare. If I watched people move, I began to notice how they shifted in various ways, like dancers finding their steps who created square patterns to avoid nudging and bumping into each other. I tried my damnedest to make something of these movements, but so far, I see only empty spaces. Worried faces, careful feet, and empty bridges.
I sat on the train and looked around. And I remember, the usual feeling that maybe you can relate to, I felt like I’d spent an afternoon mindlessly walking through Berlin’s streets, looking for a good street shot or two. But, I knew that somewhere in my camera there were two, maybe three, decent shots that would prove me wrong. That’s when I stared at myself in the dark glass reflection of the train’s window.
That very decisive moment rose up. I took out my camera and set it to a slow shutter, around 1/30th shutter speed, and took a shot of myself. It was dark, but I could tell that all the information was there in the shot.
The window, which had been scratched up over time, was enhanced by the focal point, and the fact that my face is hidden by arms, hands, camera body, and my stingy hat, made the whole composition so much more interesting.
Below are several more self portraits that I’ve taken as time passes.
Like Rembrandt, we can all choose who we are on any particular day, but always look for those tell-tale signs of the essential core of who we are physically. Are we young, older, middle-aged, how do we dress? How we present ourselves to the world, and how that conflicts with our inner self, gives us a clue to our development as humans.
Self portraits are an investigation into self. They can never capture psychology, only physical aspects of ourselves. The expressions that we look for in people, and capture with camera are like subtle hints to who a person is – this is what portrait photography is about.
A final thought.
Today, if you search through social media and look for portrait photographs, you will find some magnificent examples of photography used in portrait photography.
You will also find many examples of a total lack of thought regarding what a portrait should be, and what it’s goal is; photos of young women and men, faces plastered in make up, wearing costumes, fashion shots, costume changes, rear-end shots with a turned head over the shoulder, butt cracks and dancing elves, the list of poses goes on and on. These are mostly fashion photography, and the person in the shot is hiding themselves from the camera with fashion, and the real person is no longer visible.
Fashion photography is about theatrical poses, portrait photography is about finding the person’s most revealing traits of personality.
Portrait photography is a wonderful way to practise your camera work, to understand how to record, artistically, the history, or a moment in time, of a person.
A page of self portraits from painters in time
Photography self portraits by famous people
Sketches and Photos that became important to me