the Art of the Self-Portrait

Intro  /  More Self Portraits

Portico, Department of Justice

While browsing through the tens of thousands of photographs I have taken over the past few decades, I was struck by something peculiar. I have literally hundreds of pictures of me, taken by me. Self-portraits.

This really wasn't surprising. After all, I took all of the pictures, and I remember each one. What jarred me was that I really like a lot of these pictures. It seemed so embarrassingly narcissistic.

Home Plate, Fenway Park
I wondered how I could possibly devote so much effort to taking pictures of myself. There are far better subjects out there to put in a picture. Why was I doing this? Do I love me so much that I have to keep taking pictures of myself?

Twin Towers
My self-questioning led me to a few possible answers.

First, my self-portraits are funny. Maybe they're only funny to me, but they're definitely filled with a certain brand of humor all their own. Seeing myself in a picture posed and serious as an objet d'art is a mockery of the whole art of portraiture. It straddles the line between art and comic relief. Every attempt to ignore the camera is so deliberate, so self-conscious. Behind each serious look is a smirk trying to escape and reveal its secrets.

There's something intriguing about the way we parody ourselves in portraits by trying to be what we are not. Each stiff portrait reveals an instant of tension, as if trying to capture the moment you hold your breath just before bursting into laughter.

Despite the hidden humor, I think the pictures manage to hold their own as artistic portraits. It's this dual nature of the pictures that makes them work for me. There's something there for everyone.

Running on Boston Ave.
The second reason I found for the existence of all these self-portraits is that I am often alone when taking pictures. So many settings crave a human element or a sense of scale, and if I'm the only human around willing to pose, then another self-portrait is made. I've taken plenty of pictures of landscapes without a human subject, and the result is what differentiates a meaningful image from another pretty calendar photo. It takes a lot of work to create an interesting picture without an obvious subject. Few photographers since Ansel Adams have been able to pull it off.

Self-Portrait, 4x5 Camera
Lastly, making self-portraits is fun! Each picture gives you an interesting perspective on how others view you, like seeing yourself from the side in a three-way dressing room mirror. It's sometimes unexpected, and maybe even a little unpleasant, but it's always fascinating.

So, no, I've concluded that I'm not self-obsessed. I don't love myself, but I do like myself and enjoy being my own prop. It's not always as easy as it seems, and the challenge of making it look easy adds another dimension to the discussion.

I've put these pictures here in an attempt to share my interpretation of this underrated art form. Whether you find it narcissistic or just artistic, I hope it makes you smile.

- Steve