Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More (Oh, So Many More) Thoughts on Self Portraits

Do you all remember just about two weeks ago, when I wrote something about how I've always hated pictures of myself, and I'd kind of like to get over it already?

(Click on any of the images to expand them)

Yeah. I think I'm officially over it, and the class still has another week and a half to go. I also think I'll sign up for the next one.

I promised to write more about all the things this class is making me think, and although I'm still not ready to turn this into some polished essay on the subject, I really kind of want to write about it. And this is my blog. So this doesn't need to be a polished essay. (I know, I'm all about the revelations.)

So here, in no particular order, is an unpolished and random collection of thoughts on self portraiture. More or less just as the ideas gathered themselves in my journal over the last couple of weeks. And it's long. Really long.
(You've been warned.) But there are pictures! And my grammar's not half bad, I promise!

1) I keep thinking about the words "image" and "imagine." The pictures I'm taking are often hitting me with incredible force--and it isn't about what I look like necessarily, but more about something behind the image. I wrote more or less the following in a comment on Vivienne's blog yesterday: As I look at the pictures, I'm having these visions of what I might be capable of, things that have nothing to do with my physical appearance, or with taking pictures (of myself or anything else). And the visions aren't anything I'm consciously calling to me--they're just these overwhelming feelings of creative possibility that stem from the pictures themselves. Amazing.

It keeps occurring to me that "imagine" is a more powerful verb than we give it credit for. Even when we're deeply committed to acts of creativity, I think we don't often hear the literal meaning the word "imagine" carries: That a mere image can call reality into being.


2) If all of that is true--that an image can expand our ways of imagining ourselves--what else can it help us to imagine? How can portraits of ourselves and other people stretch our creativity and help us to stop putting limits on ourselves and everyone else?

3) And really, isn't that just another way of asking how really seeing ourselves and other people can allow us to expand our visions of them/ourselves?

4) And on that subject, I'm blown away by the degree to which self portraits allow us to allow ourselves to be seen. There are so many elements to just this issue. One of them, it's been occurring to me, is that when we're the ones both in front of and behind the camera, we have all the power and control. We can tell the story we need to tell about ourselves.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this, actually--this "being seen" business. And it's also the thing I am probably most desperate for in the world. And suddenly, this class is helping me develop the power to say, "Here I am. This is who I really am." It makes me a little squirmy to post these pictures here, but I'm also pretty proud of them. Not necessarily as photographs (still know nothing about my camera! but it's a blissful ignorance!), but as images that tell a bit of my story.

I'm interested in how this differs for me from sharing my writing with the world--after all, writing too is a way of saying, "This is who I am." I think partly it's different because I've been writing for much longer than I've been taking pictures of myself, and partly because writing is so easily separated from my physical self. A portrait is about much, much more than my physical self, but it's intimately, inextricably entwined with that physicality as well, and that's a new level of vulnerability for me.

(And wow, do those last few paragraphs shed some light for me on my fascination with/loathing of/terror of performing. Topic for another day entirely. Welcome to my stream of consciousness.)

5) Which leads me to the concept of "bad" pictures of ourselves. I think my dislike of most pictures of myself has very much stemmed from feeling unseen--and by unseen I mean, not seen for who I am, not appearing visually in a way that meshes with who I feel like I am on the inside. And that's pretty much my definition of feeling ugly.

6) Which leads me to something else I keep thinking, as I look through the hundreds of photos taken by my lovely classmates: If you don't find someone beautiful in some way, you aren't really looking at them. Look harder. With the exception of the average axe murderer, everyone is beautiful. Everyone. Yup, you too.

7) And also: Once you start accumulating pictures that make you feel seen, all the pictures you thought you hated might start to look very different to you. I had occasion to look through some very old pictures of myself just in the last two weeks, during this class, and it was as if I'd never seen them before. As if every instrument I'd ever used to measure them had been recalibrated. Sure, some of them are bad pictures--but that's all they are. They don't reflect who I am--they're just lousy snapshots. And that's different. And it's not a big deal when I'm feeling seen in other pictures.

8) Let's take a look at the word snapshot for a moment. I happen to like it, and the momentary, fleeting, time-bound nature it implies. For the same reasons, I really like the word "capture," despite the fact that it seems to get flung about willy-nilly on the Internet. (Was "capture"--used as a noun--a real photography term pre-Internet-digitized-Flickr photography?) Anyway--it's fitting, I think. It's occurring to me, as I snap picture after picture after picture--in mere seconds, with no space in between them, just trying to keep myself moving the entire time--that a photograph is simply a freeze frame.

Later, after I download the pictures, I can "flip" through them on my computer, zipping from one to another very fast--like a flip book or an old movie reel--and I can start to sense how I move. How that richer, more nuanced, more fluid whole might be beautiful, even if the freeze frames just aren't working on any given day. (And I'm not an Ani Difranco fan, but I have to admit the final lyrics to her song "Evolve" apply beautifully here: "It took me too long to realize / that I don't take good pictures / 'cause I have the kind of beauty / that moves.")

Me, magically making my hair...float?

9) However! I'm beginning to think I would argue that everyone can "take good pictures." Everyone has the kind of beauty that moves, I think, and everyone's beauty can be captured in those freeze frame moments if they/someone tries hard enough, sees them clearly enough. And as I said before, I'm learning that it takes a lot of pictures to get a few good ones. Can I just say that again? A LOT of pictures. Oh! And movement in the moment when you're actually taking the pictures is so important. It keeps you loose, natural, comfortable, and it gives the camera some of that moving beauty to sink its teeth into.

Me, not moving, just exhausted from
taking too many damn pictures.

10) The other thing about taking so many pictures, aside from starting to see how they fit together to make movement, is that they show facets. Whenever I see a lot of different photos of someone, taken over time, I'm often amazed at how different they look in each picture, and at the same time, how recognizable they become over the course of many pictures. I'm noticing that I look vastly different to myself in all my different pictures--though, taken all together, they're clearly making an overarching, collective portrait of me. The pictures represent all these facets of me--different moods, expressions, mannerisms. Things people who see me all the time in real life probably recognize unthinkingly, but I had no idea I consisted of so many tiny moments making up a whole.

11) Some of the activities for this class have sent us out into the world to take pictures. And that's super fun. And also somewhat challenging, because--as you might imagine--people look at you funny when you're jumping around, snapping pictures of yourself and making funny faces at the camera. This is...daunting. And also, once you figure out a way to deal with it, kind of funny and fun. One woman in the class told us that she was simply telling people "I'm doing a project for a class." This, I love. This, I will use--now, during the class, and forevermore. Think of all the deviant behavior that can be excused this way!

(In fact, it makes me think of a fantastic sociology professor at my college, who used to teach a notorious-on-campus Sociology of Deviance class, during the course of which, students were sent out into the world to behave in some deviant manner of their choosing and then to note the world's reactions. Of course, students in that class weren't permitted to make excuses for their behavior. But I wonder if anyone ever thought of taking a quadrillion self portraits, say, on the train from Bryn Mawr to Center City Philadelphia?)

Anyway, whatever excuse you use, you quickly learn that you need to have one. And you still wind up feeling a little inhibited and ridiculous, even once you kind of find it funny to have people giving you weird looks.

And--here's a shock--my pictures from the days when I've felt more inhibited are not even close to as good as the ones from other days. They're not even remotely as open and free and really me as the others. And how fascinating that the presence of other people can so deeply affect how easily we allow ourselves to be ourselves. And how interesting that when we can honestly stop worrying about how people are seeing us, we're so much more able to offer them the opportunity to see us for who we really are.

In conclusion: Take Vivienne's class if you have the chance and the inclination. But even if you don't do that, go take some pictures of yourself. A lot of pictures of yourself. And see if it doesn't change you a little bit.


  1. Amy that was really steller. I am right there with you!

  2. Wow, a fascinating post, and so many insights. Thank you for sharing this Amy, I'm going to have to read it again... xx

  3. I can relate to some of this especially point 5.
    The thought about the person beyond the image is interesting too. At my brother's memorial service a friend showed a video she made with photos and video of him with his friends and his music. At moments it was very familiar, but sometimes in the huge, projected image I felt as if I was seeing facets of his self for the first time, which was shocking and sad.

  4. Wow, 6. And yes, 7! And every time I think I love one of your goddess-y pictures the best, I look at the next one. :) Very proud to co-blog with you, Ame! xox

  5. Thanks all.

    And Sigrid, I can see how it would be shocking and sad to find that there were facets to someone you know and love that you'd never seen in his lifetime. But also--how intensely wonderful to have those images of him. What a gift to be able to get to know someone you love just a little better.

  6. Oh Amy this is so wonderful! I love point 5 but I loved all of it too! I love those last few sentences too about stopping worrying what others think so you can actually offer them your authentic self. There are some lovely pictures here. I really must give it a go x x

  7. Wow. I haven't been thinking anything like this deeply about it all! I have noticed things, sure, but this is really fascinating, hearing about what you've learned and discovered as a result of this class.

    I liked point 7 very much, and also particularly the things you said about being 'seen', which is something I've been thinking a lot about lately outside of the class.

    I love to death what you said near the end: "And how interesting that when we can honestly stop worrying about how people are seeing us, we're so much more able to offer them the opportunity to see us for who we really are." and am appropriating it for my quotes collection! :) x

  8. What great insights, and thanks so much for sharing these photos - they're lovely!

    I definitely agree with point 9. Great portraitists, it's always seemed to me, have peered beyond their own preconceived notions and into the heart of their 'subject' ... moving beyond their own self and into accepting and celebrating the other member of the relationship. And when you're doing self portraits, ah, there's a real beauty there as you've alluded to in points 5,6,7.

    The other day, I commented to a male friend that plenty of women (that I know, anyways) "practice" their camera looks. It's why we always look the same in our photos - we know exactly what smile is most flattering, what angle of head/body to stand at, how to do our hair, etc. (I'm totally guilty of this ... especially when modeling FO's on my blog! But also in the photos you find on Facebook, etc.) But none of those poses really capture the nuance and emotion and facets you're talking about, and I wonder if we're doing ourselves a disservice by being so preoccupied by looking "pretty" or "passable" that we've frozen our camera expressions into one or two masks.

  9. Wow, Jessica, that's fascinating! I have absolutely no idea what smile/angle/hairstyle/etc. is most flattering in pictures. All I know is that I absolutely freeze up with horror when someone goes to take a picture of me. Which tends not to make for either pretty or passable pictures. ;-) The self-portraits seem to be a way around that, since I'm so much more comfortable when I'm the only one there with the camera. Hopefully, this project has something to teach me about being more comfortable with other people around.

  10. Wow Amy, this is a great post---I was especially interested by your comments about different ways of being seen--photography vs writing vs performing. I also have performance terror---it absolutely frightens me to do certain things, like acting. But for some reason I have a much easier time letting myself be seen through writing. I've wondered if it has something to do with how you learn to value yourself--once you've been valued for intellectual abilities (told you're a good student or a good writer or smart), you develop a certain level of confidence in it and so don't question it very much. For me this is definitely true. And also, I feel like I have complete control to show people the true me in writing. But then I have always had challenges with confidence in my appearance, and I feel I have often been seen physically and in action to be very different than I think I am, and so the scariest things for me have always been involved with being seen in person and not knowing how I will be judged.

    For some reason I have classified photography as art---another thing I'm comfortable with and I feel I have control over, so I love self-portraits because of this power and control in showing people who you are and what you want them to know about you.

    I also loved your comment about the word imagine--that a mere image can call reality into being. This is the power of art (including writing) for me---you can create and/or convey any reality you want. Growing up I got so frustrated that people weren't seeing who I really was---art helped me take back that power.

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections on this class. It has been a transforming experience for me too--so much so that I need to take the next one! I'm looking forward to seeing you there.