[Self] Portrait


At home, hanging in the hallway leading upstairs, are the portraits of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Other than providing a record of what they looked like, I don’t really read much more into them, at least not consciously.  Recently I’ve been thinking that it might be time for me to add my picture to the wall.  Coincident with these musings, our club’s photography group asked each of us to create a self-portrait.  But this self-portrait was for a different purpose, and that difference allowed me think of alternatives that I would never hang in the hall.    

As I was thinking further about the purpose of a self-portrait in general, I recalled the observation of art critic John Berger from his book Ways of Seeing, that in addition to conveying the visage, Renaissance portraiture was often used as an expression of the wealth and virtue of the subject.  Quoting Lévi-Strauss:

For Renaissance artists, painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession, and we must not forget, when we are dealing with Renaissance painting, that it was only possible because of the immense fortunes which were being amassed in Florence and elsewhere, and that rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world. The pictures in a Florentine palace represented a kind of microcosm in which the proprietor, thanks to his artists, had recreated within easy reach and in as real a form as possible, all those features of the world to which he was attached.

Later, some portrait photographers, such as Yousuf Karsh, focused their attention on capturing the authentic character of an individual.  His 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill does that famously. But Karsh took another photograph that same day and that one leaves a very different impression of the man.  The first captures the British Bulldog; the intimidating warrior Prime Minister. The second could be our favourite uncle or grandfather.  So it begs the question which one is the authentic character of the person? Is it who they actually are deep down? Is it who they think they are? The role they play? Or who we think they are? Sociologist Erving Goffman might say any one of them; it depends on the time and situation.

What is in common among these examples, is that the portrait acts as a communication vehicle.  In its simplest form, it communicates what a person looks like.  By adding other elements to the image we can communicate the subject’s wealth, position and character. Compositional choices, such as the tone of the image and gesture, can shape the viewer’s impression of the subject: warrior prime minister, or favourite uncle.   The purpose of the picture might guide how all these elements are put together. Faith and trust in government might be inspired by a picture of a benevolent Queen hanging in our public offices.   In a post-modern context, a photograph might contribute to brand development or more cynically, propaganda.  

For my purposes of the [self] portrait, I might ask what parts of myself — my identity — am I willing to expose to the viewer? What do I want the viewer to take away?  With those questions answered, my task as photographer is to determine how to construct an image to convey that message.  Within the image I can convey information through my gesture, facial expression, clothes, context or background of the image, and any other objects I choose to include.  Each of these elements communicate different aspects of  identity: cultural, personal and finally that element of character that makes the subject unique or as sociologist Erving Goffman puts it: “…distinguishes an individual from all others (and) is the core of his being, a general and central aspect of him, making him different through and through, not merely identifiably different, from those who are most like him.”  This last element of character might be the authenticity that Karsh was looking for.

With that, rather than fully deconstruct my own image, I’ll simply point out some of the elements of the image that may not be obvious and leave the rest to the viewer.

  • The background is the Purtschellerhaus.  This mountain hut is located on Hohen Göll, near Berchtesgaden in Bavaria.  The lodge was built by the Sonneberg Hiking Club around 1910, of which my great-grandparents were members.
  • The lederhosen were my father’s as was the hat.  
  • My stance, with hands in pocket, is taken from a 1930s photograph of my grandmother’s cousin, also wearing lederhosen.
  • The mask is what I have worn recently during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Allan, Kenneth. 1997. “The Postmodern Self: A Theoretical Consideration.” Quarterly Journal of Ideology, Vol. 20 (1 & 2): 3-24.

Berger, John, and Michael Dibb. 1972. Ways of seeing. [London]: BBC Enterprises.

Collins, Randall. 1988. Theoretical Sociology.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Davie, G.  Framing Theory [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/framing-theory/

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Garden City: Doubleday Anchor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *