What I Learned From My Self-Portrait Habit
“In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It’s important to combine the two in just the right amount.”
— Haruki Murakami
There is a time in every serious photographer’s life when all of your friends and family have grown tired of you taking their photos, and they no longer fall for “it will only take a second” or “I just want to try this one thing”…and you come face to face with the challenge of — what the hell can I shoot? It’s a necessary part of the process, your hero’s journey has arrived at a primary conflict, and you have to rise to meet the challenge.
My desire to learn and practice in the face of a dearth of available subjects led me to turn my camera, and eventually my lights, on myself over the last year. The idea of self-portraits initially came about as part of a 100-day photo challenge because I reasoned that the one photo subject I could control is me, so I started this journey as a challenge (spoiler: I didn’t take 100 self-portraits, but may try again this year…I’m human!).
Admittedly, at the start, it felt awkward and a bit like a mic check in an empty auditorium, but the journey has actually taught me a lot more than just photography. After you come to terms with “it feels weird,” you’re then confronted with the logistics, which can be annoying and cumbersome as a team of one! Do you tether, use a wifi app, a shutter cable or a timer. How to do you get the focus correct especially if you are working with a shallower depth of field?
Then, finally, once you get the logistics settled you’re faced with “Ok…so what should I do?” Like any relationship, it just starts, sort of meanders along, and eventually, it develops a rhythm and changes over time as you change.
After working with it for about a year, I’ve surprised myself with how much I enjoy it and actually look forward to it because it forces me to face my creativity. There are no excuses, no scheduling issues, no barriers, just me. As an unexpected benefit, looking back on it recently has helped me identify some through lines and repetition in my creative inclinations by seeing my creative ideas persist and grow. I’m not sure I would call this a permanent arrival at my unique visual signature, but it’s a lead me along a path I am excited to follow for a bit. So if you are considering it, or even if you’ve written it off as something you don’t want to do, I will say that it’s been eye-opening to me and I encourage you to try it. Here’s what it has taught me along the way:
1 — It’s a pure act of creativity — It’s the old adage “wherever you go there you are.” As an artist, it’s arguably the single greatest truth we have to wrestle with…the blank canvas. After forcing myself to do them, they have become a bit of a habit and eventually, I got bored with being boring and I start to experiment to amuse myself, so the habit has forced the creativity. And look, sometimes it’s just a bunch of weird selfies, but that is the process. Just like in a typical shoot, the longer I shoot, the more little bits of creativity come out, and I start to find more props, shadows or backgrounds to add more interest or personality to my images. I’m not the most interesting and exciting person, so this part is always a challenge for me.
2 — It creates awareness of what’s on the other side of the lens — It’s easy to get comfortable behind a camera and to undervalue the difficulty of being natural or creative when someone is behind the camera flashing strobes at you or posing you in weird ways. In this way, it’s a good reminder of the process of being creative and the need for direction, feedback and the symbiosis between photographer and subject. It will give you an honest, relatable moment the next time you have someone struggling to feel comfortable in front of the camera.
3 — It helps you be honest with yourself — One of my favorite parts of portraiture is seeing, capturing and interpreting someone. When you get that image where someone is purely themselves, or a particular piece of themselves really shines through, it is the best feeling in the world. I usually end up cheering or immediately calling them to look at the image on the tethered computer. However, without that person to observe and see, when you’re creating without any other intermediaries, you have to find what’s interesting about yourself and find a way to share that in a way that creates a thoughtful image or set of images. You have to find yourself interesting and practicing seeing yourself as you do your clients or models…and I’ve found that I have more and more empathy for both the person in front of the camera and myself.
4 — Practice — I can shoot for a long time without boring a friend or family member, and I can test things that may never work without worrying about someone else thinking I am crazy or judging my ideas before they are fully baked. I will sometimes run through cycles of my lights with slight angles or power differentiation and see if I can tell the difference in modifiers, distances, feathering, etc.… Especially early on in working with studio lights, this was great practice without having to manage a model or client, so I was free to tinker and fail in peace as much as needed!
5 — The best photos tell stories, and the best stories are often right under our nose — The most universal truths are very personal. Personally, I’ve grown less enamored with the portraits of exotic people in faraway lands or in extreme circumstances because the emotion is supplemented with foreignness and intrigue from the setting, it’s much harder to tell a story that is almost mundane because those moments are harder to see. My feeling is, if you can begin to tell the extraordinary in ordinary then when you have the opportunity to capture something special you will be able to ground it with mundane, relatable elements that make a cool photo extraordinary! If you can begin that story, other stories become easier to discover.
6 — Accept the self-referential nature of photography — At first, I felt self-conscious and vain about shooting myself, it just felt superfluous in a way… I want to capture other people and other things, not take selfies! Then one day I was listening to a podcast, and a photographer remarked that looking through a glass lens and composing and capturing a fraction of a second to edit and present is already a self-referential act. You’ve already inserted yourself into the frame by selecting it, and intellectually I. Heavy stuff, I know, but for me to start the process, I had to work through my initial insecurities of feeling narcissistic or superficial to recognize that the value of art is its ability to be human and communicate a shared experience…so yes it’s still a little narcissistic, I prefer solipsistic as Ralph Gibson suggests, and superficial on the surface, but if you are lucky, you get a couple of images in the process that transcends your reality and hopefully connect with others (i.e., #5).
7 — It will force you to slow down and plan — Even with a wifi remote app on my Fuji camera, and the wireless Godox remote it’s good but not perfect. It takes time to find focus, to get the right angles and then to get the lights adjusted correctly. When I am working trying to capture an image I have in mind, I can quickly grow tired of moving the lights and then looking in the camera, moving the lights again, and on and on. I have noticed recently that I spend a little extra time to get it right the first time and paying attention to the extra details of my set up to save the hassle of the up and down, back and forth. The same goes with judging focal lengths. I have become much better at knowing where to stand with which focal length to get the image that I want and slowly noticing the nuances of different lenses when shooting people. I’ll always remember the time I kept trying to force myself into a frame with the XF 55–140mm (70–200mm FF equivalent) instead of just switching to a different focal length because this was a “portrait lens” and I should use a “portrait focal length.” So I kept inching the tripod across my living room further and further back, over couch and table and toys…lesson learned!
8 — Like every good photograph, it can take you back — I have one early set of self-portraits that as I was making them, I felt like nothing would come from them. They were simple, I looked tired, in some of them the highlights were blown out, but over time as I look back they were part of a larger piece of my journey, and they tell a story that I didn’t recognize at the time. So when I see them now, I see myself at that time and the nostalgia for that moment, when I was, in fact, tired, frustrated, not focused and frankly feeling blown out. So, the imperfections of the moment played a more significant role in the image than I fully understood at the time. I was remarking with a friend on social media that in a way they can become like a photographic journal. I can imagine a time when the images I am taking now will take on new meaning as my life continues to change and evolve and I am hopeful for the new experiences and a little more thankful for who I am right now.
9 — You get used to the way you look in a picture, you see yourself differently — Instead of looking at a reflection, you see an image. It sounds simple, but it can be powerful and scary if you struggle with your self-image. We usually see our face and body reflected back to us daily in the mirror, where we gloss over details naturally, as our brain saves it observational powers for greater threats, and we tend to see what we expect to see… our big nose, wrinkles, one eye opens larger than the other, a mole... Seeing myself now, having created image after image, has changed the things that I like about myself and helped me be a little less self-conscious about some things. For example, I have been self-conscious and less than forgiving about the size of my head, and there is a mole on my cheek that really annoys me. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, but it’s something I don’t like, aesthetically. I used to notice it a lot, but the more I see myself in images, the less that bothers me. I’m not perfect, but it bothers me noticeably less over the last year as I have become more used to seeing myself in photographs. Something happens when you become more comfortable with the process, you recognize that your camera knows you better than you thought and maybe…just…maybe the person in the mirror doesn’t know it all.
10 — You can do it anywhere — all you need is you and your camera or phone. I saw a fantastic self-portrait in a facebook group recently where a woman took her self-portrait in the oxidized reflection of a chrome bath faucet and the edges distorted her face and the surroundings beautifully and she remarked in the comment that for her it captured a particularly difficult creative time and helped spark her creativity with the simplicity and authenticity of the image she captured. I love to try foggy reflections or weird reflective textured metal or glass when walking around the city, just to keep my mind focused on creating.
As I mentioned at the beginning I recognized several themes or through-lines in my earlier self-portraits that have emerged in my work:
- I almost always choose BW
- Not a lot of smiles, more honesty, but definitely some silliness
- A lot of reflections
- When I frame, I tend to hug the edge of one side of the frame
- I love contrast & deep shadows, I don’t need a lot of extra context
- Evidently I really like that t-shirt a lot because it’s in about 75% of my self portraits!
I hope this was beneficial in some way, to be honest, I have only been doing these with intention for about a year, so I can’t make any long term grandiose statements about how it lead me to inner peace or an international photo career, but I can honestly say that it is an integral part of my creative process now and I wish I had started sooner. There are a lot of people doing much more creative self-portraiture, so my claim isn’t original work, but simply as a process, it has been a wonderful journey, and it has surprised me with how much it has offered as a growing artist.
So if I’ve convinced you at all — just start with this…get the awkward first date over. It’s never the best at the time, but it’s always a great memory. Just start. And if you find some creativity along the way, I would love for you to share it with me, now or down the road, either email me or DM on instagram.
Author’s note: There is a long artistic history of self-portraiture and in writing this I am not claiming to be a part of that history only a fellow pilgrim. If you’re interested, here are just a few people who I’ve recently discovered doing interesting self-portraiture work:
@miss_beige ( not exactly self portraiture, but self referential in a very interesting way)
Following the light one day at a time!