Just How Difficult Is It to Take a Self-Portrait?

Under certain circumstances: very.

The first challenge of Dogwood2016 was a self-portrait, using the camera’s self-timer. Well, finding out how to do that was easy (I read the manual).

But the rest…!

If there’s anything I hate more than being seen with a camera in my hand, it’s being in front of the camera. I was only sure of one thing: the resulting self-portrait should not really show much of me. If you say that can’t be a self-portrait, yes, it can.

What Exactly Constitutes a Portrait?

Did you ever consider what makes a portrait? Because I can’t say that I have ever given much thought to the subject before. This painting, for example, which I saw the other day, is obviously a portrait:

The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals [public domain]
The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals [public domain]. Wallace Collection, London
But there can be other interpretations of what constitutes a portrait.

The Hand of an Artist

I read a post by The Idle Woman recently in which she talked about the process of choosing portraits for the by now closed British Museum exhibition French Portraits from Clouet to Courbet. The most interesting point she made concerned the drawing of a hand. Is it a portrait or not? She opted to include it in the exhibition because it was not just any hand; it was the hand of the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi holding a quill (as drawn by Pierre Dumonstier). Now I think it’s generally accepted that the best portraits express the character of the subject: if that is so, then what can express the quintessential nature of a painter better than the drawing of her hand?

This brings to mind another example: the celebrated 19th century pianist Ferenc Liszt (better known to you as Franz Liszt). Liszt was the best pianist of his era, if not the best pianist ever. Essays and medical studies were (and are still being) written about his hand, photos and plaster casts were made, as if any of this could somehow explain his technical virtuosity at the piano. Wouldn’t you consider a picture of Liszt’s hand a portrait?

Part of my character is that I don’t like the limelight on myself. I’m a shy extrovert (trump that for a paradox). So a self-portrait that’s not that revealing would be entirely fitting.

How to Take Self-Portrait & Remain Incognito

I’m sure you too can think of several ways of taking a photo that doesn’t actually give away too much about the subject’s identity:

  • A backlit silhouette
  • Face obscured by long hair, a fan, a book… a camera
  • Figure in the shadow
  • From a great distance

Of course if  you’re using one of those methods and are effectively hiding the person in the portrait, you’ll have to find other ways to convey character: props or perhaps a telling location. (Personally, I’d have rather fancied myself in the pilot’s seat in the cockpit of an airliner!)

Once you’ve taken your not so revealing portrait, you could obscure matters even further by putting it through a photo editing software… how about turning it into a painting (if you’re conservative) or into something very strange indeed (you could try green tinted skin to look like a zombie).

Lessons Learnt (If Any?)

  • I learned how to turn on the self-timer in a pitch black bedroom
  • If you’re going to be in the self-portrait business, get a tripod. Having to balance the camera on piled up books overhanging the edges of shelves complicates matters insanely.
  • Taking pictures of myself is boring (I always suspected this, actually)

After about 50 attempts, I was bored enough to settle for this black & white version of myself:


And that is the closest you’re ever going to get to seeing a portrait of me.

You may also like:
French Portraits from Clouet to Courbet by The Idle Woman5 Tips for Great Self-Portraiture
⇒ The Dogwood Photography Challenges: 2016 for beginners and 2017 for advanced

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