Photographers' self portraits are often thought to be proof of narcissism. For me, they represented the recovery of a wounded ego.
I don’t know how two photos taken within a minute or two of each other can be so different: The first makes me look thin as a bone and the second fat. These were both me and they represent rare examples of my turning my camera onto myself.
Back in junior high school, I had tried to take the initiative for my appearance. The school announced photo day. I chose not to tell my mother. When the picture came back, she was furious. Where was her cute little boy? Who was this smirky brat? She fumed. That photo became one of her obsessions. Every now and then — even well into my adulthood — she brought it up to torture me. Thereafter, I dutifully sat for portraits, but I did not like them. Ugly was the name I associated with my face. I have to admit that it disappointed me that people didn’t ask me to sit for portraits or that they took awful pictures sometimes — these convinced me that my suspicions about my appearance were true.
The pair of photos that I took to accompany a color photography class project were among my first attempts to recover my self — to recast myself as someone who could be photographed. I cringed at them, but secretly I reveled as well.
Another attempt dating from that time — my early thirties — shows me mugging in the god awful style of floppy hat common among summer people in the Northeast (someone asked me where I got it. “Maine,” I said. “Take it back!”). I carefully lined up my Nikon atop Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain and set the timer as I had done for the two color photos. The result was less than perfect in my frightened mind. But it was another step.
A few years later, I visited Mono Lake. Here, I made a picture of myself as a ghost. The technique is best done with an analog with control over f-stops and shutter speed. What you do is set the exposure one stop lower than your meter says it should be for the photo. Then you take the picture with you in it. Then you get out of the way and shoot the double at the same settings with just the background. I look at this now and feel that I was coming into view — that I was less keen on hiding from the world.
I don’t think anything helped me more to amass a collection of self portraits than a series of cell phones, but I felt the real fun still lay with my film cameras. When I toured the American West this last fall, I brought along my La Sardina. It enabled me to do double exposures that pressed my image into the dramatic scenery that I saw at Yellowstone and Great Basin national parks.
I entitled these two photos “narcissism” but I feel they represent something more. I am able to look at my face without wincing. The self-portraits of the last few years do not represent rampant self-infatuation: they demonstrate that I have forgotten the pain that made me think I could not be photographed. That belief was eroding and in its place came not conceit, but a sense that I was worthy of being seen in a picture and that I could set the rules.