Self portraits, this is a self portrait. Warning introspection alert!

A cog slowly turns, the ratchet toothed wheel passes and the pawl drops in; another penny spills onto the floor.

I’m having a few conversations and it’s these conversations that occasionally seem to open a door, but just as easily present a corridor full of doors offering more questions and dilemmas.

Mita, at Brookes, Oxford was very clear about her motivations for her work- see here. She wanted to discuss the role of women in India, about the gender related issues, about identity and her pieces at the exhibition spoke about her reaction to those issues. Having the conversation with her, not only whilst she spoke about her work, but also as we walked around the degree show, meant that we could investigate subjects and talk about them. Her work made a lot of sense to me, it was her personal reaction to something that was important to her. It was a portrait of her self.

Another artist that I spoke, albeit too briefly to, at the same show, Alex Hackett, whose work had many resonances to Francesca Woodman’s work, seemed also to be a very personal view of her reaction to the world and the way she found herself in it. About how she fits into that world and in a very literal way.

The WeAreOCA post on portraits – the conversations of why certain people like certain portraits – suggests a projection of the viewer onto the plane of the image. Almost as if the photograph becomes a mirror, that the viewer turns the image to face them and elicit from the viewer an expression of the viewer’s make-up.

Looking at, as part of the course Ray Billingham’s  “Ray’s a laugh” is a self portrait, the same with Larry Sultan’s work “Pictures from home” where he says “…but at the same time I wished to subvert my images with my parents’ insights into my own point of view.” That others – who are all ‘Others’ to the documents  – comment on the perceived view are I think, projecting their own ‘self’ into the narrative. They ‘see’ with their own memories into the picture presented. The image is a reflection of the viewer’s past and maybe that is what Sharon says on the post about varying aspects of truth and about how we face up to them – maybe we see them, those truths, in portraits?

In Eddy’s picture here I commented on how I, as the viewer, was made to look; “I’m particularly impressed with both the confrontational element and our proximity to the subjects; they force us to face up to these people, their issues and our responses to them.” I can see that she has needs, she needs a ‘walker’ she is using the ‘walker’ as a shield with all the associated connotations and despite her obvious need, I am asking myself what am I doing to assist this lady whose needs are so artfully expressed. It is my reaction to the image that I see, not necessarily that my conscience is pricked – though that as well, it’s that I reflect on myself as a person through Eddy’s portrait. And I wonder if that is what all pictures do. Larry Sultan’s image “Dad Watching TV, Mum Posing” is an image that the course recommends me to look at – it was also recommended to me through People and Place (I wonder that says about reactions to my work?!?). Clearly Sultan asks the viewer questions within the frame of the image, about the interrelationships within the confines of the composition (composition is an interesting term – it suggests very strongly of a construct for the purpose of delivering some narrative; a novel, a musical score, a painting and of course a photograph). But Gareth’s reading suggest that he has a narrative too that is surfaced through looking “This image by Larry Sultan is one of my favourites because it speaks to me about the relationship with his mother, but also his mother’s relationship with his father and his relationship with his father. That’s a lot of relationships in one image; it rewards my curiosity.” Looking and reading, it might suggest a dystopian set of relationships, or rather a set of tolerant relationships of quiet respect. Only Gareth knows, as much as Sultan knew his intent at the time of the shutter click, what that composition might mean.


A little while ago I was asked why I had such a reaction to some of my work, and this is starting to concern me more and more. This self portrait was done as part of the exercises in Roger Angier’s “Train your gaze”. I’m still struggling to generate any comprehensible, coherent reaction to it. I knew the process would be difficult, I wrote about the experience here. I know it isn’t idealized and I don’t have any real words to describe my reaction to it, even now a year or so after the event – though the image and process still haunt me somewhat. The question that was asked of me was to do with some landscape images that I felt were ‘nice’ to look at, easy on the eye but for me had little or no value as images. This whole question is coming around again, because, as if to prove a point , I enlarged the images (as if to make them more pretty) framed them and put them alongside some other work in the exhibition that I’m currently having. One of those images sold twice within the first hour. That it should sell once confounded me, that it should sell twice is something I’m wondering about.


So, to answer the question about how I read this image is still difficult because I am still aware that it took no time to create. I didn’t plan the shot, my purpose was to create a set of documents, similar in vein to those that are recorded in the Middle Barton History Group archive. I ‘saw’ that the image would work very quickly; I placed the line of grass into a corner and the tree line about two thirds up and clicked.  Yes, there was a slight question in my mind about exposure – it is a snow scene, but the general gloom militated against that concern – at worst it would a be about a stop under exposed, and at that level there would be all the detail would be held in the RAW file. The actual image was almost monochrome in any case, so the post processing was relatively simple and then a ‘nice warm tone’ to finish it off. Done.

So what does it say to me? How do I read it? My tutor suggested the word ‘melancholy’, which is a state that I do find myself in, so should I be looking at that state of mind in the picture? Or does it express itself as a state of melancholia? I knew it would be a graphic image, somewhat stark, devoid of a lot of extraneous detail, abstracting the ‘land’ from the ‘scape’, leaving a residue of constructional elements to view, and all subdued by the fog. Yes, I can see melancholy, but I also see beauty, as in Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” which also has a strong sense of sadness and depression about it. Perhaps it’s about ‘otherness’? Perhaps it is that it is close by, ten minutes walk from home to an arable field usually full of one crop or another and now, in this image, transported to another place, an indeterminate place by the covering of snow and light fog? Maybe that’s it. I can’t be sure. I know it is a nice picture, the same as the others in the set and they do draw people to them and I cringe with fear as they start to ask questions about the image. A painter, who works solely with abstract images of the landscape came and viewed them and considered them for some time. He said he liked the softness, and the absence of form, in one or two of them, spoke to him more than those that had more detail (like the one above), he was talking about this image in particular. He didn’t buy it.

But so far I have been asked to explain myself in regard to the pictures, which may mean that no-one senses any depth to them, that they are just aesthetically pleasing images, as I thought, and that they don’t have any subterranean meaning that can be excavated from my sub-concious? More wheel turning required to explain myself. But the reading of images, especially portraits have made me aware of the level of the ‘self’ that the viewer, and certainly this viewer, reads into an image, or rather extracts from an image. Surely the reader can extract nothing else, other than appreciate the intent expressed visually and texturally which ‘over-scores’ that reading of the self. And it appears very strongly to me now that all pictures are self portraits, reflections of the self, conscious or sub-conscious depictions of the self, informed by life’s mysteries and confusions


4 thoughts on “Self portraits, this is a self portrait. Warning introspection alert!

  1. Interesting for me to look at two of the images above – your self portrait and the one you’ve sold twice. What came into my mind was something emerging – you from the chair and tender shoots from their blanket of snow. I can certainly delve further into my imagination and write what both those images could mean to me about me, but it’s your journey towards yourself as a photographer that interests me most.

  2. An interesting reflection. I would only question one proposition that you make “…all pictures are self portraits…” Would you include forensic/documentary/newspaper/automated photography within that statement? Of course they all require choices to me made – but I think I would draw the line somewhere where the photographers level of choice and control lessons and another person’s (eg editor) takes over as being the point where the viewer can’t read the image as reflecting the values of the person who shot them. (Its only a thought though).

    • documentary – yes; newspaper – yes; automated portrait – yes – maybe forensic doesn’t have a case to answer for… I’ve been reading Siegfried’s blog – about sports photography and most professional photographers expect their images to be ready to “print” – upload to a publication within fifteen minutes, not much chance their a a great deal of editorial control..But I take your point, which I think is well made.

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