Vancouver’s midday sun sat low on the horizon. Most uncharacteristically for late November, neither clouds, nor fog, nor drizzle filled the air, and I struggled for a block or two against the full intensity of the sun’s blinding rays. The acute backlighting created an excessive contrast ratio that made photography futile. So I crossed the street to take advantage of the city’s 30-story man-made monoliths, which obliterated the rays and bathed the opposing sidewalk in a snapper-friendly spectrum of greyness.
As I crossed the street, my gaze — which normally scans a horizontal arc several meters before me — shifted downward so I could see and modify the exposure settings on my camera. I had long ago learned to reject a camera’s auto exposure recommendations, and was now setting exposures manually. With a little effort, the process was becoming as fluid and instinctual as the manual transmissions I preferred in my automobiles.
As my eyes dropped, I saw my toe inadvertently scuff across a pebble and propel it toward an open metal sewer grate. Clang!
I analyzed the reflectivity of the pavement. I looked at the softness of my shadow. I judged the extent to which the skyscrapers were blocking the direct sunlight, then set my aperture and shutter speed accordingly. Kerplunk!
“What was that?” I wondered. I had already forgotten that I had kicked up a pebble, so the sound of its splash startled me. “Must be a deep one,” I surmised as I paused to peer down through the grate. Far below my feet, in the blackened depths, I saw my own reflection peering back. Without thought or hesitation, I focused the lens at infinity, then held my camera parallel to the grate and took a photo. It’s what’s known as a “throw away” shot — the kind we photographers take every day and, more often than not, throw away.
Back home, clicking through the day’s captures, I was drawn to the sewer grate photo. It was odd, strangely unappealing, geometric, and a bit grainy. It seemed to invite scrutiny. What armchair Freud wouldn’t delight in the analysis of a photo in which the photographer’s own image appeared behind bars? What could be inferred from the notion that my likeness was reflected in a sewer? Or that it rest at the bottom of an inscrutably deep pit? Even I wasn’t sure exactly why these elements appealed to me. I deemed the photo a “keeper,” and a respectable “self portrait.”
It’s unlikely that anyone would argue with my description of this photo as a “self portrait.” After all, it’s a photograph in which the photographer, me, is the subject — pretty much the de facto definition of self-portraiture. But over the last couple of years, I’ve come to define “self portraits” in an entirely different way. To me, a “self portrait” is a photograph that reveals something about the photographer’s true soul — his proclivities, fantasies, aesthetics, and personality. The photographer, himself, does not need to be the subject. Nor is there any requirement dictating that the photographer need appear anywhere within the photograph at all! Rather, a “self portrait” is a photograph that divulges something of the photographer’s inner self.
Consider my previously-published photograph of a girl waiting in a nightclub queue. Even though I don’t appear in the photograph, and even though I’ve never met the girl, I regard this as a “self-portrait.” There’s something within the image that’s a reflection of myself — the way I see things, and the way I respond to them. There’s a sort of dreaminess to the girls’ expression that speaks to me in the same intangible way as Robert Frank’s classic Elevator Girl. Obviously, a photo like “Girl in a Nightclub Queue” isn’t going to speak to everyone. In fact, the image has received a bit of online criticism for being out-of-focus or, as one photographer noted, for being something that he would have simply deleted had he captured it. But, to me, there’s magic here. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what compelled me to take the photograph. I don’t know what continually draws me to it. I do know one thing though — I’m not the least bit bothered by any criticism it receives. That’s because it’s a photograph made for me. It exists for only one reason — it pleases me. When we shoot for clients, we rarely have the luxury of pleasing ourselves. Even amateur photographers have “clients” in the form of friends or family members, who often feel compelled to approve or disapprove of the images.
When I photograph for clients, I must constantly consent to fashion. When I photograph for myself, I am gloriously unconcerned with it. If I were to present my ten favourite “self portraits” to a prospective client, I’d be laughed out of the office. However, if I selected a random collection of pedestrian photos and processed them with excessive micro-contrast to get a faux-HDR look, then 9 people out of 10 would think they were ‘great.’ They wouldn’t be. They would just be fashionable. Too many photographers confuse fashion with passion. In a never-ending quest for acceptance, they constantly strive to ape the popular techniques of the day, and never develop in a way that’s true to themselves.
If you think I’m throwing stones, I am. In fact, I’m throwing them in a glass house since I, too, was once guilty of confusing fashion with passion. Several years ago, I got a very good job because my portfolio contained photos like the ones shown above. I assumed, because they were the sort of photos that solicited the most enthusiastic response, that they must be my “best” photos. Yet I was, in many ways, embarrassed by them. It took me a long time to realize why I was embarrassed — it was because the photos weren’t a true reflection of my own self. They matched a fashionable aesthetic, but not mine. They pleased others, but not me. Such photos are still in my portfolio, and I still happily capture them — but they exist as a representation of my ability to fulfill the desires of a client, and not as a representation of my own psyche.
I used to only take photos that I thought would please others. As a result, I was forever displeased with my own work. I now no longer reject a photo opportunity simply because it’ll produce an unsellable or unpopular image. Last week, I took the “yellow chair” photo because I found it to be a compelling ‘landscape.’ The reasons why it’s compelling are obvious to me, though I’d be shocked if more than a smattering of the world’s population shared this view. But I don’t care. It’s a photograph for me, not for a client. It’s a photo for my soul-searching portfolio, not my job-hunting portfolio. It’s passion, not fashion.
Successful photographers have many masters, and possess the proficiency, knowledge, and vision to satisfy them all. But unless a photographer also seeks to satisfy himself, he is ultimately nothing more than a technician. In his most joyfully pure manifestation, a photographer has only one true master — himself. And, if left to contemplate which of his photos he most admires, an honest photographer will rarely choose the shots that earned him the most money or the most praise — he’ll choose the shots that, somehow and in some way, reveal something of himself. Those are the photographer’s “self portraits.”
©2009 grEGORy simpson
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