Thoughts about Self-Portraits
If I could look at a person and define them, then what would be the sense in getting to know someone better? Yet, photography can shape how we perceive others. Similarly, what we wear can alter people’s opinions about us, whether we like it or not. Especially if we don’t know that person well. Sometimes, strangers, or acquaintances take better photos of us than those who understand us on a more intimate level. So, what role do self portraits play? That we wish people could understand who we want to be? do they even represent who we are? I think it depends.
I remember an essay I read on the history of fashion, that stated it was when organized civilizations began burying their dead in individual graves, people started focusing more on themselves as individuals, and almost simultaneously, started to decorate themselves while they were alive. The idea being, once we recognize our separateness, we shift from a united group to self interest. In turn, we become more aware of how others perceive us, and how we look. Does this imply that carefully arranging our dress and hair means we are selfish? I hope not.
Virginia Oldoini Verasis, countess di Castiglione, a Tuscan noblewoman who was a frequent in the royal courts of her day, commissioned over 400 photographs to be taken of her. She controlled the lighting, subject matter, costumes, and even the camera angle. Nowadays, it is common, for most, to have at least as many digital photos taken during their lifetime. But during the era of the countess, no one had attempted this before. The effort and expense she extended to accomplish this goal is staggering. The result was that she was immortalized using the photographic processes of the day, in a way that no other woman had done previously. Her iconic selfies have inspired all forms of art through the following decades, and subsequent century, and continues to be a subject of reference for artists, most notably in fashion. Was she just obsessed with herself? Perhaps, perhaps not. The fact remains, the images are unforgettable.
Of course, political leaders have always used images of themselves to connect with the public, and to shape how their subjects feel about them. No one did this better than Napoleon Bonaparte. He did not have the convenience of a camera at his disposal, nor could he paint his own portrait, but he certainly knew how to commission portraits for himself with some of the greatest artists of his time. Using his image as a means of self-promotion worked wonders for him. Those who believed his ideologies and political beliefs were utterly devoted. They went without proper nourishment and froze in the fields they fought in, often found with a miniature portrait of their beloved general in their uniform. These armies, for quite some time, defeated their opposers against all odds. Much of their persistence can be attributed to feeling connected to the man leading them into battle. Did he go too far? Well, he did historically crown himself during his coronation as emperor, and a few months later, crown himself a second time in Italy. This seems, a bit telling.
There are notable artists on the other end of this spectrum of ego, who used self portraits to communicate their art, life, and presence. By these works we gain insight into who they were, and connect with them in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise. Possibly the most well known for this is Frida Kahlo, but Vincent Van Gogh painted himself 43 times as well. Yet, When we look at these paintings by these masters, there is no impulse to criticize. Why? I can't help but believe, it's because, in part they created these images themselves. Not to self promote, but to understand and be understood.
Motivation, inspiration, and what message we are trying to communicate through this form of self expression, makes all the difference.
Self portraits have lost a little of their magic in recent times in part because of the influx of digital selfies. In the ease and availability with which we can now advertise ourselves, the immortality that the Countess and Napoleon enjoyed seems like a very distant past. We are glutted with faces. It’s all smoke and mirrors, pixels and code. Transient. Often without real thought or purpose. And, there is the crux of the matter. What is the intended purpose behind the 'selfie', or even the self portrait? To be admired, to be esteemed? To deceive?
It seems the appropriateness of posting photos of ourselves in 2020, and beyond, is greatly dependant on why we are posting these pictures, which can be any number of reasons, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Only we ourselves, the selfie taker, or the portrait maker, truly knows why they are making the image, For who can know the heart of man? But, art isn't always appropriate, and sometimes a beautiful portrait created for the wrong reasons still resonates with those who view it, and that's the one of the most intriguing things about the power of the self portrait.
-Kary Janousek (Ambrotypist/Hat Flogger)
The Good: Please take the time to watch this video documenting the work of Borut Peterlin. He is a wet plate artist I’ve been following over the last year who is currently working on a self portrait series called “New Earth”. It explores the permanence of our ancient world and man’s deep connection to nature.