Monday, December 12, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A nod to Hawaii, the home state of my childhood
The hardest thing for me as a photographer is to be the one in front of the lens.  I feel awkward and vulnerable as the subject of a photo.  It's so much easier to be behind the lens, directing, composing and working on making other people look their best.  When it's my turn, it's a different story.  The things that people see everyday as I am walking around are forever digitally captured: my very straight nose, sharp jaw and flawed skin remind me that I don't look just how I perceive myself to be.  I am suddenly faced with the job of accentuating the good and masking the flaws, just as I do for other people and it is very humbling.  

People have been making self portraits for thousands of years.  Think of the mighty sculptures of Egypt.  Sure, they were commissioned by the Pharaohs, but still they are the sculptor's interpretation of the Pharaoh's exact wishes.  Most self portraits of those times were usually very iconic, but about the time of the Renaissance, artists broke out of that mold.  German artist Albrecht Duerer portrayed himself to look Christ-like.  Michaelangelo cleverly painted an image of just his sunken skin into The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.  Artists began to put their own feeling and personality into their work at this time, so it is not surprising that self portraits became very common.  

As a photographer, self portrait photography is one of the most important things we can do to improve our skills in portrait photography.  As we frame a shot from our tripod, we must be aware of where the camera will focus, what the lighting is and what's in the background of the shot.  We must think through the process of directing the model as we direct ourselves.  We think through the most flattering lighting, camera angles and perspectives for our own particular build and look.  The best thing is that we don't have to convince anyone but ourselves to pose as a model.

There are 3 main types of self portrait photography: Realist, Expressionist and Dramatic.  Rembrandt, the Renaissance painter, painted himself over 60 times throughout his lifetime.  When a subject of a portrait is lit from the side, as light from a window, we call this Rembrandt lighting because that's how the light in his portraits fell.  It creates a gentle kind of shape to the face that is very attractive.  Rembrandt's portraits represent realism.  His paintings show him just as he is and are very interested in being true to life.

Vincent Van Gogh
Frida Kahlo
Pablo Picasso
Picasso, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo were all expressionist artists.  Their portraits reveal more about who they are and the things they battle with.  Van Gogh struggled with mental illness and Frida Kahlo sustained a traumatic injury that left her in severe pain, both emotionally and physically.  Picasso is interesting because his work moved from more realist in to very abstract as he realized how much he could express with so few strokes.  There is feeling and tension in their work.  

Self Portrait photography can be the same.  We can invite the viewer to learn more about us through the symbolism, dramatic lighting or creative composition of our work.  Expressionist self portrait photography can be an image of just a part of us that represents something important about who we are.  Surprisingly, we can even do a self portrait without our actual body in the frame.   If we make an image of something that strongly represents us in an abstract way, it can be considered a self portrait.  See the image below. 

This and the following pictures of old photographic prints are from my photography days in school.  This was old fashioned 35mm black and white film developed in a can, then put into an enlarger and exposed on photographic paper donated to my high school by the Army.  This picture is an expressionist self portrait.  I had taken wire, measured my exact dimensions, then bound it together in a life size sculpture of me, complete with vellum for skin and a lamp lighting me from the inside.  I liked it and people kind of thought it was amusing.  I remember my college roommates dressing it with a certain undergarment of mine to surprise me one day.   
Self Portrait photography can also be a way for us to present an idea by using ourselves as actor.  We are no longer ourselves, but the character in the image, working to tell a story.  Photographer Miss Aniela is hugely talented at this kind of work, which she does using tripod, remote and Photoshop. 
Much of the facts on the history of self portraiture comes from the book "Self Portrait Photography" by Miss Aniela.  

Miss Aniela clones herself by combining images in post processing software, making an interesting story.

 So why don't you have a go at it?  Try a few shots with your cell phone camera. Make a new Facebook profile picture.  Get out your digital camera and learn all about the timer setting.  Brainstorm until you thing of an idea you can't quite figure out...then set about working out how to make it happen.  Set up a shot, being careful to keep the surroundings simple and relevant to the mood or story you'd like to share.  Snag a tripod or even a beanbag to stabilize the camera in a strategic place.  Begin to experiment, and don't give up until you have something that's interesting to you.  You can do it.  I'd love to see links to any albums of tasteful self portraits in the comments.  Express yourself and boost your photography skills at the same time!

I think I've always liked to hide. 
This was an attempt to recreate the high school portrait in my new older skin.  The fake Hawaiian flower was the only blossom I could find.  I think my portraits all tend to be expressionist.
I think I've always had a thing for pictures of feet.  These are my faithful slippers that I wore to school for most of my years growing up in Hawaii.  I'm really good at losing shoes, thus my blog URL: BarefootMommy.
My foot and that of a friend.  Our school used to be someone's estate home.  There were lily ponds with frogs in them!  We loved to catch the frogs.
Today, my older feet in my huaraches.  Still minimal shoe wear. Still liking the feet, no matter how big the bunions are or the injuries they sustain.  They are interesting, they take me places and they are me.
This is exactly how I love to be most of all.
As a homeschooling mother of five, my life often feels like this.  The days march on more briskly than my own internal clock.  Demands upon me are endless, so that sometimes I wish there were a hallway of this many versions of me, ready to quietly set to work and accomplish things.  
When I'm overwhelmed, as I often can be, it's this stance that saves me, whether figuratively or physically.  When I pray, or when I look up and notice the beauty all around me, the problems shrink in size.

This is entirely because I am SO into cameras.  It's also here to show that I get to carry on my dad's legacy, using the strap from his old camera from the '80s.
This is my eye, surrounded by some wrinkles and freckles, a little tired and overwhelmed currently, but generally content.
The stance here shows how I can be removed from and simultaneously intertwined with the creation of a photograph.
Everyone says Maia is my spitting image.  I thought I'd try to make a picture that put her face on my head.  It could show how my kids are an expression of me, but also how I sometimes hide the real me behind them.  It would also test how alike Maia and I look.  First, I plopped her up on the counter and got to look into the handheld mirror.  

She gave herself some whiskers with a comb she was holding

Then she looked at me in just the right way.  Of course later I kicked myself for the messy background and was bummed about the lack of sharpness, but my concept came through a little!
This was the image that probably came closest to the idea I had in mind.  Maia got tired, so I didn't keep going, but we had a lot of fun, and she didn't mind helping me out!

My trusty helper

Just a goofy parting shot.  I have a shrunken head!


  1. Love the pictures, and the commentary, beautiful woman!

  2. This might be one of my favorite posts that you've written. Your pictures are beautiful and I love your honesty. Love it.

  3. Beautiful,My friend. You and my little sweetheart!!!

  4. Love the shots with Maia!

  5. Loved reading this post. You are a very talented woman and have a lot of inspiring words to share!

  6. I think my favorite is the one where you talk about the camera strap. And the sandy feet.

  7. I love the sandy feet one the most! :)


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