The camera I: Photographic self-portraits

For however dutifully we record what we see around us,

the common denominator of all we see is always,



the implacable “I” (Joan Didion)

This book deserves to be on the reading list for self-portraiture, not just because of the 148 photographs, self-portraits by some of the greats of photography spanning nearly a century and a half, but because of the fascinating and thought-provoking introduction by Robert Sobieszek on the nature of portraiture and self-portraiture. The following passage says so much about the nature of self-portraiture that I quote it in full:

In self-portraiture, where the artist and subject are ostensibly the same person, the dynamics of reading, interpreting, analysing, and representing involve by definition a cycle of self-regard, self-presentation, self-revelation, and self-creation … an attempt to achieve an honest and convincing representation of the self invariably embodies the realisation that there are at least two selves, one accessible and the other hidden …’ (Sobieszek and Irmas, 1994, p21)

It is little wonder then, why I have found the process of creating self-portraits so challenging and exhausting – there is so much going on, when considered in this way.


Sobieszek explains the concepts of ‘watchman’ and ‘spy’ to explore the nature of self-portraiture; the former with the role of observer of the surface of activities, and the latter with the objective of digging below the surface to discover information or secrets. In explaining how the photographer as spy might work, he quotes Richard Avedon:

The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All that you can do is to manipulate that surface – gesture, costume, expression – radically and correctly.

In my portraiture work, I have used the concept of a portrait as ‘an interview with a camera’; that is my way of ‘working with the surface’. In my upcoming self-portrait exercise, I need to find a way of talking to myself with the camera.

Sobieszek suggest that self-portraiture can be divided into three general types; delineation, distortion, and disguise. He goes on to illustrate these concepts by reference to works in the book. He concludes with the inevitable end, which is perhaps why I find self-portraiture a sobering exercise:

Self-portraiture is ultimately a confrontation with the self’s mortality. The self that stares back at the artist was once, when the photograph was made, and is no longer; marking a time immediately removed in time, it portends the imminency of death. (Sobieszek and Irmas, 1994, p32)

In my upcoming self-portrait exercise, I will attempt to relax into the idea of me photographing another me and me trying to shape my surface through a conversation with me. Otherwise, I am doomed to appear as a pantomime actor performing.

Sobieszek, R.A. and Irmas, D. 1994. The camera I: Photographic self-portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art u.a.

2 thoughts on “The camera I: Photographic self-portraits

  1. Sounds like a great book. I’m going to check it out. Self-portrait, I find is really hard to do. I usually find I land up having an argument with myself :-).

    1. I find it difficult too – end up feeling strangely self-conscious with myself, which sounds impossible!

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