I’ve become interested in portraiture lately, the conventions, how we pose, how we read it, and how they’ve all changed. At the same time, I am made deeply uncomfortable by portraits of myself, partly because of the vulnerability that a publicly circulating portrait creates, and partly because I somehow missed the day when everyone else learned to be photogenic. I’m not saying I’m ugly or unattractive or homely, just that almost every photograph of me makes me look that way. I tense up, my hair sticks out awkwardly, shadows fall unflatteringly — something is always off, and my least flattering features become most prominent, while more flattering aspects lose their luster. I devour any advice I can find from photogenic people, but it never seems to help. It’s a skill I just can’t seem to master.
I try to laugh off all the unattractive photos of me, but they inevitably feed my insecurities and blur my sense of self. I know I’m not supposed to care, but I do. So I’m going to set aside my internal protestations of arrogance at undertaking such a self-centered project to prod the bruise that portraits have left and see what I can learn about art in general, about portraiture in particular, and, since a portrait is a tool for seeing how other people see you, about myself.
Above to start things off is a simple silhouette made by taking a phone selfie in front of a bright window, with a quick bit of adjusting in Photoshop to increase the contrast and clean it up a bit. As usual, looking at this portrait, simple though it is, I first see something I wish I could change: the softening angle between my chin and neck. Hello, forties. I also have to confess that I took at least a half a dozen photos before I got one that I was standing up more or less straight, with my head not *too* far forward, as it most often is. I felt like I was nearly bending backwards here. Another thing I notice looking at the photo is that my nose is really pretty pointy. Maybe that’s a function of the side view, which isn’t how we normally see people, or maybe my nose really is particularly pointy. Either way I don’t thing it’s bad, just odd. Silhouettes are pretty forgiving, so overall I’m more comfortable with this than most pictures of myself.
The silhouette portrait has a rich history from its peak in the 18th century to the present. Despite the modern tools I used (iPhone and Photoshop) in place of paper and scissors, it still feels clearly related to that tradition. Add the classic shoulder swoop to the bottom and tighten up the hair a bit, and it would be right at home in a collection from the 19th century.
Ahead here (ahem) will be a mix of self portraits and portraits of myself I commission from others, both in different styles and media, possibly interspersed with a few portraits of others here and there as intermissions. Probably it will be a relatively short project, a few months or a year at most, but we’ll see how things go. Undoubtedly it will be at times intimate, and it will certainly frequently be uncomfortable for me, but perhaps by the end a little less so.
If you’re interested in participating in the project by making a portrait of me in whatever medium you prefer, please get in touch to discuss specifics at catasterist at gmail.