Don't feel like reading the whole entry and just want to see some photos? No problem. Go here.
The self-portrait. Ugh. Every aspect of doing this mini-project was f***ing awful to me. I have enough residual anxiety that I titled this post with a biblical reference, and three sentences in, I'm using profanity.
I didn't choose the title of this post by accident. I've avoided taking pictures of myself and being in other people's pictures enough that I knew that this would be terrifying for me, which is exactly the type of challenge I need right now. I needed to shoot myself. And it felt like shooting myself. A bit hyperbolic, but the anxiety is very real.
The debate and discussion that surrounds what even constitutes a "portrait" didn't simplify matters. Should I attempt to do a traditional portrait? Should I go for the more avant-garde or surreal? Should I do color? Black & White? How much should I edit in post? Should I use a backdrop or pick a location?
I recently talked about portraits with my dear friend Daisy, who is currently taking photography classes. She asked me what I thought the definition of a "portrait" is, and a few arm-chair photographer thoughts came to mind:
- You should instantly know who the photo is about, whether it's a simple headshot or an elaborate set surrounding the subject.
- It should say something about who this person is somehow. It's your job to capture the "something" about him/her that this particular person carries around, and your photography style/philosophy should augment--not detract or distract--from that.
- Sometimes, a good portrait is just something you feel in your gut. It's a bit like what Justice Stewart described in his opinion for the famous obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio: "I know it when I see it."
Of course there are certain steps you can take to make sure you have a solid, good portrait--having sufficient lighting, understanding your lenses, knowing which apertures and shutter speeds are appropriate for the situation, positioning your subject in a flattering pose, etc. But to create something special, something that really fits the subject and the photographer's style--that takes something outside the formula. It takes creativity and courage.
So naturally, I felt pretty screwed from the outset.
I decided a few key things fairly quickly. I wanted this to be a simple shoot because it was just me, and I didn't want to spend too much time fretting over props or locations. Black & White in editing would be the way to go in order to enhance the way I was playing with the lighting. Also, Black & White photography is very forgiving--color photography is actually much harder than people realize. I used the backdrop and lighting equipment I had bought from the now defunct ArtPhotoArt Studio that had to close in February due to rent demands. It felt good to liberate the equipment from my basement and put it to work. I also decided to only use artificial light and close off the shutters in the space for more control. Finally, I knew that I wanted to focus on my face and only do shots above the shoulder, wearing a simple tank-top. Easy-peasy-lemon squeezy, right?
To quote one of my favorite movies, this was "Difficult, difficult, lemon-difficult." Holy crap, this was difficult on a technical level. I had my husband, Matt, sit for a couple of test shots just to get the general lighting positions and camera distance in place; however, once it was my turn to get in front of the camera, I had to keep getting up and down to see how each shot was turning out in order to adjust the focus and find the placement I needed for everything. Since I had closed the shutters and there was no air conditioner in the space, it got hot in there very quickly with the lighting equipment (I use continuous lights instead of strobes). I was sweaty and a little panicky and glaring at the lens...a lot.
Also, my glasses. SIGH. My lovely, adorable glasses became a pain in the ass because of the glare they created if I moved my head from a different angle than I had been in when I first set up the lights. Sure, I could have removed the glare in Photoshop, but the whole point of this exercise was to try and get over my fears and make a real effort to get the photo I wanted without a ton of editing. So I made the adjustments when I wanted to, and I let there be a glare when I wanted to. I just knew I didn't want to take off my glasses.
And I didn't want to wear makeup or dress up or do my hair. If you know me, you know that I'm lower than low maintenance. Don't get me wrong, I like to think I clean up nicely for special occasions or going out for dinner. But when I'm home, when I'm with my family and close friends just hanging out, I'm pretty Plain Jane. I don't hide it in my every day life, so why bother trying to hide it in my self-portrait?
In the end, I went with a mix of different types of faces and poses, trying to loosen up with each shot. I played with some longer exposures, some non-centered poses, and how much shadow I allowed the lights to create. Although I'm referring to this as a personal mini-challenge, I'm not framing the end result as "win" or "lose". I didn't expect to walk away with a mind-blowing self-portrait. The larger goal was to give it a go and just sit down in front of the camera. The "me" you're seeing in these photos is probably a more honest "me" than the Selfies I usually post on Instagram or Facebook (and look, no toddler in the photo with me!). I feel like the Selfie isn't so much for the subject of the photo as it is for the audience; but the self-portrait is so intimate that it's really for the subject while the audience's reaction is superfluous. If they like it, they like it. If not, at the very least, you learn something about the subject without a single word spoken.
I'm older. I'm tired. I don't always feel like smiling. I still make funny faces at the world in self-defense. Sometimes I just hide. But I'm trying.
That's "something", right?