Dear Addie Advice Column #3
Recently, I have been so inspired by your @AddieWearsHistory self-portraiture work on Instagram, as well as by the photography on your website. You keep moving me to pick up my camera (albeit, often an iPhone one) and take self-portraits, but when I try to, I just feel sort of lost. Or maybe, more accurately, I feel self-conscious -- I have always been camera-shy and rather insecure about my appearance and body in photos, and I also worry that if I do actually take self-portraits and post them on social media, people will think I am silly or self-indulgent. You make camera work and posing look so profoundly effortless, and your work commands such a presence. So I am wondering if you have any advice for those of us wanting to start out with self-portraiture -- about where to draw inspiration from, your favorite artists in this realm (bonus points if queer), how to pose, lighting, materials... anything! I am your obedient student.
Dear Awkward Selfie,
I love this question! My relationship to self-portraiture is a long one, so settle in! I’m sure that every individual’s relationship to selfhood and to taking photos of themselves (whether they take staged self portraits or “selfies”) is a complex one. For me personally, as a person born, conditioned, and raised as a girl/woman and as an identical and mirror twin who was always read as the same because of the likeness I shared with my twin sister, I’ve often sought out self portraits in order to understand my own relationship with my self. For me, personally, self portraits are a way of claiming back my relationship to my face and body, my physical form, that I felt was often taken from me by the “watcher,” whoever that watcher may be. It remains an incredibly empowering practice.
I often wonder how much earlier I would have taken self portraits if it had been easier when I was younger to take them, the way it is now. I’ve always loved taking photographs - I begged for my first camera at the age of 10, and my mother bought me a cheap instant camera that I brought with me everywhere until she dropped it trying to help me take the film out during one vacation - but I didn’t start turning the camera on myself, as it were, until I began a rather complicated relationship (which was also a deep friendship for many years) with a person who was a photographer. She taught me most of what I know, but I should admit that I am not that technically proficient, with a camera or with the other aspects of photography, like lighting, staging, etc! I often stack books instead of use a tripod. My depth perception and understanding of space is very imprecise and so it often will take me hours to stage a photo, especially if it’s one from #AddieWearsHistory, where I am trying to emulate a specific photo, but also make it my own. If you are interesting in working in film photography, which is my favorite, then a light meter app is your friend! So many photographer friends have tried to explain aperture, f-stops, etc., but my brain just isn’t one for those specificities so I love using a light meter app as a base and play from there. It is hard to stay dedicated to film as I don’t have a darkroom (nor know how to build one) and so now we have to send out our film (long gone are the days where you could process film at your local drugstore/pharmacy, or even find a 24 hour processing photo lab) and that’s just an added expense over what is already an expensive medium.
This answer is all over the place! Let me try to get to your question. Let’s start first with the idea of both self-consciousness and also the perception of self-indulgence. For me, self consciousness and self indulgence both have to do with not being present, and with being too singularly focused on what others think of either our physical selves (or the embodiment in the actual image) or with a particular intent. I feel that when I see a person take a number of self portraits where I can tell they are, ahem, proud of how they look in that very traditional way, I’m just not interested. I’m more interested if they call it out. I’m less interested if they act like they’re coming from a more sincere place and aren’t willing to admit they like the way they look in a particular type of image made over and over again. I take self portraits to understand myself and the particular moment I’m in better. I’m sure there’s someone out there that considers the work I’m doing narcissistic or self indulgent, or finds my multiple photos I take of myself crying obvious and cliche. I try, as much as I can, to block out that noise. So much of what I’m doing with self portraits has to do with where I am in a particular time in my life, so it’s also about archiving my particular embodiment at a particular time.
Some artists who I love regarding self portraits are Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman, Lorna Simpson, Frida Kahlo, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper. It is no wonder that there aren’t any men on this list, because I think there is something incredibly empowering for women (or non-binary people) to reclaim the gaze in their work.
I think it can be an incredibly helpful practice to take A LOT of self portraits, but also to model them after other images - paintings or photographs. Not necessarily in the way that I’m doing with #AddieWearsHistory, but something even subtler. For example, perhaps you want to explore the way that Cindy Sherman purposefully makes photographs that have a sense of the staging aspect of them, like her film stills. Or take Laurel Nakadate, who took a photo of herself crying every day. I would study artists of all kinds, but that focus on the human figure, and see what it can bring out of you. I personally prefer taking photographs with a camera rather than the iPhone - although I use the iPhone a lot mostly for convenience and expense - because there is something about the traditional lens where I feel that I am also forming a relationship with it, as well as myself.
In terms of lighting, and staging, allow yourself to play, to experiment, and most importantly, to fail. Don’t be afraid of taking a photo that you believe isn’t your best look, whether that means the bullshit standards of beauty we’ve been conditioned to focus on, or perhaps even some sort of emotion that comes through that scares you in its legibility. Just remember, no one has to see a single photo you take, so the sky’s the limit.
But above all else, the idea is to connect with those deeper parts of yourself, and see how to make them translate to the photograph. One of the things I like most about having taken self portraits for so long, is I get to see them change over time. I’m glad for this question, because it reminds me how long it’s been since I’ve taken photos with my film camera, and I want to get back in it!
If you feel comfortable and you enjoy some of the photographs, I know that we’d love to see them!
Oh, and one more thing, don’t be afraid of props! Wigs, objects, something unique in the background that says something about you. Or settings - in the woods, an abandoned warehouse, or a place that provides endless light and shadow play. Play with all kinds of artificial and natural light, at all hours of the day. You’ll find what works best in your particular environment. My favorite thing is when the photograph I try to take doesn’t happen, but something else I didn’t expect - something exciting, something that reveals something new, does instead. It’s truly magical.