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Self Portraits, and why…

Some of it might be/probably is/ok definitely is a kind of narcissism. But many of my “self images” are made to solve practical concerns: how does light from a new modifier actually look on a human shape? Is it positioned correctly for the person who will be under its influence in just a few minutes?


I also make composites, just to terrify my friends. When testing lighting for a group, I’ll place myself where each person might be and then construct a single image in which I appear as many times as I can sensibly include. Ha.



Some of my self portraits are a sort of anti-narcissism (there’s a concept for you) that is borne out of a personal discontentment, and some of it comes from the usual rush of ego or self satisfaction found in some small success or a larger pleasure on one plane or another. In the moment, I try not to self-analyze.


Usually I make these self images within a confluence of opportunity and willingness: I’m in some sort of emotional  flux and the light is right, or I’ve created light for some other purpose now finished, or I’m a stand in for the next client, or I have new gear that I need to familiarize myself with and I’m the one person who’s always available for that.  But it’s never when I’m concentrating on something/one else (I was going to say rarely, but I’ll risk “never”). It’s usually an after thought, after a job and I’m alone, or when I’ve hit a personal wall, and nothing seems to be going right, or I just did something well.

It is some kind of therapy, and whatever I’m feeling in that moment, the act of photographing myself usually helps to mitigate a somewhat ungoverned mood. If I’m feeling too confident, it’s a reminder of my flaws and frailties. When I’m down, it shows me the folly and counter-productivity of self-pity.

I started making self portraits long before I became a photographer for hire. The first images I made of myself were after a particularly bad break up… in which I found myself behaving in non-productive ways.
To initiate some introspection, I started photographing myself in those darkest moments… and through those revelations was able to turn away from that depressing and self-destructive behavior. I still indulge in this sort of reverse photo-therapy, as my friends can attest (“Don’t you ever smile?”).


I also practice self imaging in an attempt to avoid a pitfall common to Men Of A Certain Age… when the interior-imagined self image seems to be stuck in the same nostalgic era as their music selections (AeroSmith… really? Flock of Seagulls? Pullease.)… eternally 24-36 years old. Right.

About 20 years ago, I photographed a beautiful man of about 63 years. A truly gorgeous man with a giant waving shock of white hair that matched Bernstein and Avedon. He was a survivor of many trials… with the tattoo to show as evidence.

I was using Polaroid 665 film in a Mamiya RB67, and when I showed him the first image he said “Oh Tom… do you know what? I am an old man.” I immediately and mercilessly replied, “Oh Gene, do you know what? You’re the only person who doesn’t know that.” And in that pivotal moment I decided that unlike my friend, I would not be blindsided by the inevitable, that I would photographically track my body’s aging as it occurred, and be cognizant of that steady companionship.


A few days ago an old friend showed me some of the first self portraits I had ever made. Despite my attempts to stay in touch with myself, I still was shocked to  realize not how old I am now, but how young I was when I first took up the camera. The flaw in my plan was in not staying in that Tralfamadorian model of time… to be both 35 and 62 in the same moment. Now.


Recent changes mean I’ll need more of that awareness. I need a dose of insight. But don’t look for that work in my Facebook profile album.  Be glad.



One Comment Post a comment
  1. perceptive and poignant. thanks for this Tom. I can relate. Appreciate your imaging!


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