The Truth & Beauty of Me – Self Portraiture

My project is taking me to some interesting places. It has got me thinking about reality, who, what and even if, I am, whether there is any such thing as a self and what truth and beauty means in photography. Turning a camera on me is also proving therapeutic as it gets me to look at the external surface of me and things around me and allow me to challenge what my internal state appears to be to me.

Self portraiture has to be a first place to look to explore what I can discover about me with a camera. The image below is one of the first declared self portraits that actually turned out to be an early example of fake news. Attached to the back of this image is a suicide note signed by Hippolyte Bayard in 1840. He was outraged that his delay in registering his discovery of the photographic process lead to fame and acclaim for Louis Daguerre and no money or fame for him. This was his protest but in fact is an image of a drowned sailor taken by Bayard himself. source

Since this photograph self portraits have remained an inquisitive and active genre in photography. It is a fascinating quest as ‘the author of a self portrait…..can never mimetically represent the physical reality that other people see. The ‘self’ is always in some respects also an ‘other.” (Bright. 2010:8).

I met Elina Brotherus at PhotoEspaña in Madrid. She is famous for taking photographs of her(self) in multiple different constructed scenarios. I asked her if she ever felt any of her images were more or less representations of her. She replied that none of them were her. She did say her friends often commented on which images were or were not her. As I looked at her in the flesh and looked to images on the wall around her it is easy to see how I get confused about what I am seeing.

Susan Bright says…’When we look at a photographic self portrait we do not see an individual or a visual depiction of an inner existential being, but rather a display of ‘self regard, self preservation, self revelation and self creation’ open to any interpretation imposed upon it buy each individual viewer. (2010:9) This is something I have been struggling with and wish to explore further. Is it possible to convey an inner state of mine through a surface image.

In the two images that follow I am smiling. In one my inner state was happy and in the other it was very sad and black. Even though I know which is which it is difficult for me to show you how the external image shows that inner state. I have shown these images to a number of people who say ‘you can always see in the eyes.’ So far more than half of those people choose the wrong picture for a particular inner state.

Claude Cahun (1894-1954) said ‘under the mask is another mask…….the real self can never be revealed because it is performed – a role rather than a truth.’ (Bright. 2010:16). I agree with this as we are never a finished discrete describable entity but an ever changing continuum. Within that is the conundrum that in the way we understand time to flow all there ever is is ‘now’. This gets philosophically and psychologically demanding and wishing we could get back to simpler times when we could say ‘I think therefore I am.’

To any normal person and a none academic me there is something in a self portrait of me that is about me. Apart from looking at me it is the closest we can get to indexical evidence, for you and for me, that I exist. Susan Bright captures the essence of the self well when she says the self is ‘all pervasive but also elusive, hidden, collaborative, duplicitous, camouflaged, constructed, disguised, discursive and fleeting, always present but impossible to pin down.’ (2010:21). Always present but impossible to pin down.

Susan Bright’s book ‘The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography’ covers the themes of autobiography, body, masquerade, studio, album and performance. My conclusion is that the many forms of self portrait have been well covered and offer me some approaches to consider within The Truth & Beauty of Me.

An image alone or even a set of images is never going to fully capture ‘me’. This statement is harmless and tautological in a way as quite possibly there is no such thing as ‘me’ other than that created and ever changing in my head. But all is not lost. Photographs do say something and do have a tale to tell. The next steps in my project are to be clear about what story I wish to tell and which photographic approaches provide the clearest evidence of that tale. Self portraits will form part of the work.

A final thought is that as I have explored other photographers work I do project on to their images something of what I want to achieve with my work. Sally Mann’s 1000 Crossings of the Mississipi have many images of her and her family that appear to show an inner state. Similarly David Heath’s Dialogues with Solitudes does somehow get across how lonely some of his subject might (?) be. Alex Soths Sleeping By the Mississipi is both a beautiful book to caress but again gets something across about the inner state. These are all my projections on to these images but somehow the photographer has successfully managed to evoke these projections in me and in many others. Even if that might be a performance as Cahun says!

Reference

Bright, S. The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. 2010. Thames and Hudson.

Categories: Contextual Research, Surfaces and Strategies

LEN

I am a Photographer. As well as taking many photographs I am currently studying for an MA in Photography at Falmouth University. I will direct my attention through the lens of my camera for the next couple of years and see what shows up. I see a photograph as a little bit of magic capturing a moment in time. If successful it surprises and engages your emotions. It tells a story about the wonders of being alive or tells us what we need to change to make it a better world to live in. That is enough for me to get going and then like walking a 1000 miles, which I did across the UK in 2010, or walking 200 miles across Cyprus, which I did in November last year, it is one step at a time.

I was a writer. The title of my unpublished book was ‘You Would Have Done The Same.' It is about a successful guy in love with his wife who lets her die when he discovers her in the process of committing suicide. The title gives a clue as to what I think you would have done. The book is 200 pages long. I found it cathartic to write it but after two years of work and reviewing with agents decided it probably needed another 2000 hours to get the whole book up to the standard of some of the pages. Writing is great but it is a lot of sitting down so I decided to get out and walk, play tennis, play bridge, go birding, watch football at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Valencia and anywhere else if I can, meditate, cook and eat. I was a writer who has so far failed to become an author.
I was a young man who loved Mathematics and thoroughly enjoyed getting a BSc at Liverpool University. While there I went often to Anfield and the Philharmonic Hall. I was all set on doing a PhD until I went for interview practice at BP and got seduced by the excitement of an International business career. BP was a great adventure building trading teams and businesses in London, Antwerp, Cleveland Ohio and Singapore. Fabulous people and some great challenges and also very hard work, constant jet lag and lots of fun along the way. I married Karen, my stunning wife, and had the most amazing time with her and our three boys Alex, Tom and Dan. She has multiple sclerosis and we have taken on many challenges together but somehow keep creating a new normal against the horrors thrown our way. She is the love of my life.

After BP I decided to coach senior executives and quickly realized I had a lot to learn
about what makes people tick. I had a fantastic 18 months on the International Programme of the Cleveland Gestalt Institute. A great faculty and a
wonderful group of people on the programme. We studied and worked in Dingle, Singapore, Holland, Cape Town and
Lisbon. This also got me interested in the way we think and make decisions so I studied for an MSc in Psychology atUniversity College London in 2010. The
Masters was in Cognitive and Decision Sciences and I found it fascinating what
we do know but also how much we don’t know about how we think and make
decisions.

I loved coaching and making a difference. I got a number of people to hear themselves, remove some of their own chains and free up the way they thought about the world. I remain fascinated by how people react to and engage with the world. My Masters thesis was why do two people given the same information make different decisions? Put simply, it is because each of us are unique in the way we are constructed.

Since returning from Singapore I found English winters tough so moved to Spain where I now live. The people are lovely, the scenery amazing, food delicious and the sun shines all the time. Almost.

All of these experiences will feed in to my time now as a Photographer. Three motivations I am lucky to have are enthusiasm, curiosity and a continuous interest in learning. All the time I look forward to meeting old friends and making new friends and experiencing this wonderful life together.