Friday, January 09, 2009

it's all about me

I've been thinking lately again about the topic of self-portraits, and that got me looking for an some examples which I shot a couple years ago as I was getting into pinhole photography. I also started looking around on the web to see what was being done currently. On the Flickr photo sharing site, I went to the Groups section and did a search on the term, "self-portrait". The site's search engine reported that there were 1,352 groups with a focus on making self-portraits. The largest of those groups I found had nearly twelve thousand members. That seems like quite a social phenomenon to me, but I don't recall seeing any serious discussion of it before.

I haven't any real data on the apparent self-portrait boom. My guess is that it started to gain momentum in the 1980's when cheap fixed-focus cameras started showing up with relatively wide-angle lenses. Using one of those, people with reasonably long arms could snap an arms-length photo of themselves and get it processed in about an hour. Digital cameras enhanced the ease of making self-portraits by an order of magnitude; many, including the cell phone cameras had short focal length lenses with macro close-up capability, as well as auto focus and auto exposure.

Of course, a lot of photographers did snap pictures of themselves right from the beginning of photo history, I suppose for much the same reasons that painters looked to their own images for subject matter. The earliest workers used large, tripod-mounted cameras equipped with pneumatic tubing and squeeze-blub shutter releases to put themselves in family portraits. Many started using a mirror in the process so as to include the camera, and emphasize the role of photographer as the creator of the image. Many - perhaps most - of the photo greats of the last century turned the camera on themselves, and some did so with regularity. Man Ray and Imogen Cunningham, for instance, created visual biographies of themselves which spanned their entire professional lives.

While there are a great many books to be found on the subject of photographic portraiture, there seem to be very few specifically about self-portraits. One I am familar with is actually an extensive catalog for a self-portrait exhibit that briefly toured the U.S. in the 1980's, Self Portrait in the Age of Photography: Photographers Reflecting Their Own Image,by Erika Billeter and Roger Marcel Mayou. It is a fascinating compendium of the art of self-portraiture in photography's pre-digital era. Another is The Camera I: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collectionby Robert A. Sobieszek and Deborah Irmas.

1 comment:

robert said...

Lee Friedlander is another who has done a lot of self portraits. I enjoy his work but I could never take as many self portraits as he seems to. Of course I've never sold a print either!!:)