Working on Selfie Respect… Street Photography Self Portraiture Thoughts

Street photography self portraits… I had an interesting morning a few months back at 5am in Centre Place. This unexpected expedition, along with my admiration for Vivian Maier’s self portraits, has got me thinking about a project theme.

As per my usual modus operandi, the first step is to look through other people’s images that appeal to me and dissect them.

#1 To put the camera in frame or not…

Well, the kids all seem to use selfie sticks these days. The ones that have a bit of an eye manage to keep the stick out of frame. My favourite street photographers are quite deliberate about getting their camera in frame or not. What interest does the camera add to the image?

Two wonderful images created by Vivian Maier, and very similar in style and composition.

The image with the camera states in no uncertain terms what the person is, does, and loves. The viewer can be inspired by the knowing that the photographer is the subject. It is clear that the photographer wants you to see them this way, to learn something about them, maybe a small insight into their mind and thoughts? There is a direct line of communication between the photographer and the viewer. “This is how I want you to see me” or perhaps “this is how I saw myself at this moment”.

The image of Maier with her camera speaks to me. I have purposefully not watched any of the documentaries or read too much about her. I prefer to take meaning and understand her through interpreting her images unfettered. She looks isolated, maybe a bit of a loner. Her clothes look a bit conservative, inconspicuous – even for the time. Like she didn’t want to be noticed. Is this how she saw herself?

As analogue film is my preferred medium, I have to admit I am always looking at cameras. It is little bit embarrassing to admit, but when I see Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” or Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” videos pop up on Music Max, I am checking out the pro film cameras from the 80’s and 90’s in the clips. My wife once came home to our hotel room to find me watching some Playboy shoot “behind the scenes” doco – at first she said “Really, Damian???” as if I was checking out the topless women… but then she realised “you are checking out the camera gear, aren’t you???” Yup, I was. And I am sticking to that story.

Right Said Fred video - "I'm Too Sexy" - Love those cameras!!!

Right Said Fred video – “I’m Too Sexy” – Love those cameras!!!

Many classic self portraits that have the camera in frame feature classic film cameras that I daydream about. So, if there is a selfie with one present, it is always going to pique my interest! My secret shame is loving to look at film cameras…

The second shot shows a different Maier. The camera is out of frame, and immediately suggests a higher level of confidence. There is a suggestion of a photographer taking the shot – and she is strong willed enough to pose comfortably. In the first selfie, in contrast, she looks very tentative. She is posing as though there is someone directing her posture, and someone else lighting the shot.

It might even be the same dress and the shot taken on the same day, but the two images are very different representations of Maier. Whilst not strictly a street photo, the second image has a strength and sense of confident security that suggests it was taken in her home.

Having the camera in frame seems to give more of a “window into the soul” feel. A more vulnerable and open style of image.

Having the camera out of frame makes it feel more of a facade, like a fashion shoot.

Or you can make the self portrait about the camera, extreme style, and the act of capturing an image like Weegee here…

There is very little of Weegee in the photograph. It feels more like a statement of his artistic intent, and how he went about it – this being the window to his mind?

#2 Shadows

Photographing one’s own shadow seems to be a common visual theme. Feels a little bit “meh” to me, unless executed in a spectacular manner.

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Again, Vivian Maier nails it. What a unique image – her silhouette on the wall of a neighbourhood apartment building. Imagine her waiting for the light to hit at just the right angle, and finding the high perspective – on a train station above the road? So many elements that make this image just wonderful. At first, the image looks fairly ordinary, until you see her on the wall.

By comparison, Lee Friedlander’s image below here, seems far less interesting, and even a bit aggressive, stalkerish, or foreboding.

Lee Friedlander

It is a much loved and commented on image, but is not to my personal taste. It feels like the opening ten seconds of a B grade serial killer movie – if that is the intent, then OK. Just doesn’t hold my interest as the viewer – it suffers a bit from the classic artistic criticism “yeah, I could easily do that!”. Yep, part of the “art” is to have come up with the concept, but I just don’t find the concept very interesting or compelling, and the execution is pretty simple.

By comparison, this self portrait by Friedlander is incredibly interesting with many layers of discovery.

Lee Friedlander 2
He is silhouetted, and there is some kind of smaller reflected, framed image in the centre of the frame. Both the concept and the execution have me scratching my head on how I could I reach the same heights. There is also a second layer, with the male hatted subject standing next to his car, parallel lines in the building behind and much more.

Shadow and silhouetted images don’t seem to bring much of the photographer to the image. The photographer seems to become a prop rather than a subject. Whilst I love the Friedlander shot above, and the Maier image, neither gives me any imagined insight into either of them. They are faceless cardboard cut outs – aesthetically appealing, but it suggests very little about them personally.

Shadows and silhouettes are an aesthetic, rather than a window to the photographer. The viewer can project themselves into the image, similar to Ruckenfigur style images.

#3 Reflections

The first Maier image is a simple, but emotive reflection. There is also an opportunity to combine interesting and dynamic composition to reflected images of the photographer, usually with the camera in frame.

Again, Maier is simply a master at this technique. Combining reflection, framing, and creative compositions, all the images are ones I could ponder for hours at a time. Images I would love to have framed on my walls at home. Most of her reflective images involve framing her face somehow. Even the image without a camera in frame still has the suggestion that she is the photographer. All images suggest something about her at that moment in time.

The self portrait is fairly obvious, but all have a touch of quiet subtlety. It still takes a couple of seconds to realise (well, for me anyway!) to realise the image is of the photographer herself. Nothing too complex, but it does add an element of gentle surprise and interest.

To achieve results like this, keep an eye out for different planes of reflections – none of them would have immediately popped out to me as an opportunity. Maier seems to be able to identify dynamic opportunities for reflections. The image of the men holding the mirror features Maier with a small, wry smile. I imagine she has asked the men to briefly hold the mirror in place for her. So, the courage to ask people for help would also seem important. What is the worst thing that can happen if you ask someone for something – a “no”… It’s not that bad really, is it? Ask more often and be happy with the answer either way.

So, how about simple, direct reflections? Unless the image is as raw and interesting as this one from Lee Friedlander…

Lee Friedlander 4

 

…interest is more likely to be incorporated into the image by using unexpected and unusual reflections.

Maier’s images are all framed, and often suggest something about her – many of the images appear to be in a cluttered environment – maybe her home?

Even using a simple, direct reflection self portrait, challenge yourself to add interest. Maier achieves this here with the little girl included in frame. The girl has the same stern look that Maier often has, almost a little defiant. There comparison between the two is quite engaging. I know Maier was a nanny, and I wonder if it was one her charges? Or some random kid that was just interested to see what Maier was doing.

VM7

 

#4 Cross-overs and combinations

Combining different elements can work. Although, things can start to get overly complex or visually cluttered…

Wow – Maier is my real go-to for selfies! All four are Vivian Maier self portraits. All of them hold high interest visually, but are bordering on becoming cluttered, to my eye. Each viewer will make up their own mind though!

This image from Friedlander is a less complex, yet still fascinating self portrait.

Lee Friedlander 3

There is enough of Friedlander that is reconisable to connect with him as a person. Combined with the three dimensional, angled frames which give a dynamic feel to the shot. There is the faint outline of the camera, which he is holding up, which makes it clear it is a self portrait.

#5 The Total Self Portrait

Maier again. This is, again, a self portrait – composed and lit in a dramatic fashion. If I wasn’t familiar with Maier’s work, I would not have expected this to be a self portrait. Identifying an image as a self portrait seems to change the way the viewer interprets the image. Would she be this confident being photographed by another photographer?

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Whilst the Maier image above does not really belong in the street photo genre, my image below is a good example of an image which suggests it was taken by a photographer, rather than being a self portrait. The whole inspiration for this post was the way people reacted differently to the photograph when they discovered it was a “selfie” – a rather complex one to execute, but no different to what a million teenagers did today in Australia…

Roll 199 trix400 H1 50mm370

#6 Impressionistic 

There is also the highly impressionistic style as demonstrated here by street photographer Alex Coghe (you can find more of his work here).

 

Final Thoughts…

  • Bringing the camera into the frame identifies the image as a self portrait – and in turn, reveals the intent of the photographer to the viewer. It is how the photographers sees themselves or how the photographer wants others to see them.

 

  • Leaving the camera out of frame can change the feel of the photograph, and alters the viewer’s perception. There is a very clear difference in my mind between the solitary and safe act of taking a self portrait compared, to having someone else stick a camera in your face to take a portrait.

 

  • Framing and reflective surfaces are the two main tools for composition.

 

  • Having a clear creative intent in taking a self portrait is an important factor in lifting above the “selfie” genre.

 

Some places to check out

http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/11/11/street-photography-composition-lesson-9-self-portraits/

http://www.alexcoghe.com/street-self-portraiture/

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/23/10-best-photographic-self-portraits

http://www.theinspiredeye.net/self-portrait-photography/

http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/

9 Responses to “Working on Selfie Respect… Street Photography Self Portraiture Thoughts”

  1. Great article. Clearly you have put a lot of thoughts in it. I’ve learned a lot and thank you! Helen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the picture of yourself in a reflection with the girl inside the window is one of your best selfies.

    I haven’t really thought about selfies, that would be an interesting project

    Like

  3. I would thank you for the link to my post and for the nice reading. It is a post I appreciate a lot, with two great photographers, among my favourites, Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander, absolute masters in self-portraits. I am very interested about this topic, as a photographer and a content proposer. Wait news about this. Thank you!!!

    Like

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