Category Archives: Assignment 3

Assignment 3: self-portrait


Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit. You may choose to explore your identity or masquerade as someone else, or use empty locations or objects to speak of your experiences. However you choose to approach it, use yourself – directly or indirectly – as subject matter.


In addition to looking into the photographers mentioned in the course notes plus others listed in my diary, I also consulted Susan Bright’s 2010 book Auto Focus.

Concept Development & Process

My diary for this assignment can be found here. After some time, I came up with the idea of a “non portrait”. This was partly in response to me not liking very much photos of myself and partly out of frustration about the lack of progress in this assignment. I had in mind a distorted image, showing motion. I made approximately 60 shots (see Contact Sheets) with a plain black background showing differing degrees of movement, head angle and expressions. My “picks” (shortlist) are indicated on the contact sheets. After reviewing several times the  picks, I came down to one image – #44 – which illustrated my desire not to have a portrait. I cropped to square format because I wanted to focus on the subject (recognising the irony here) and converted to monochrome because I wanted a stripped-to-the-essence look and felt that colour didn’t add anything and if anything, confused the message. While taking the photos, a working title popped to mind: “Not a Portrait”. I decided to hand-write this at the bottom of the image because I was interested in experimenting with text as mentioned in my diary.  I feel this works as relay text because plainly it’s in contrast to the image content and the two bounce off each other. I like the kind of tension and mystery it creates.

Final Section

Contact Sheets

Following are my contact sheets with an indication of my “picks”.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques used, the process was fairly simple and no great challenge. I believe that I have achieved a simple, but effective design which focuses on the subject and conveys my intention.

2. Quality of outcome

In this assignment, I have managed to produce a powerful self-portrait which synthesises much of what I learned during this section of the course. I was particularly pleased to be able to try out the use of text in almost a “protest” mode. I believe my desire not to have a straight portrait comes through strongly.

3. Demonstration of creativity

I have tried to use a creative approach to the brief, revealing, but at the some time not revealing and also introducing tension via text.

4. Context

My research into the self-portrait shows that there are many, many ways to approach the genre with some being particularly challenging (see Bright, 2010). After looking at a great deal of the work of other photographers, including other students, I believe my end result meets the brief, but appreciate that with creativity comes risk.


Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)


Assignment 3: diary

11 Nov 2017

My first thought when starting this diary was a practical one: what format should I use? I like the look of handwriting, although my own is pretty appalling and has been going downhill for years. On the other hand, I knew that I’d want something that was with me all the time so I could put down thoughts at any time. That more-or-less ruled out a paper diary for me.

So, I’m using Evernote – my old fallback for the ultimate, portable note system. The Mac version doesn’t support diagrams very well (maybe not at all), so maybe I’ve finally found the use case for getting myself an iPad 😃

Anyway, to press on: today I finally submitted assignment 2 with a strong feeling of relief. I’ve also been reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned from the assignment in terms of overcoming blocks, generating ideas and not getting stuck – an ever-present trap for me. Image 028 resonates most strongly with me about barriers existing only in my mind and if I could just metaphorically step back, I’d see the barrier for what it is and be able to move on. Easier said than done, I think, but the idea stays with me.

Another reflection point is about about looking and seeing. When I knew what I was looking for, potential subjects were everywhere. It’s about having a strong idea and focusing on it – not to the exclusion of all else, of course, but as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do (Lewis Carroll, I think).

So, onto part 3 and the start of this diary.

12 Nov

So, this assignment is about a self-portrait. That doesn’t fill me with joy at all. I’m much more at home behind the camera, as are I suspect most of my fellow students.

A rainy Sunday. A morning spent doing practical things like the shopping for the week and a luxurious afternoon spent on Part 3 – working through some exercises, doing lots of web searches. After a long dry period, it’s actually a nice feeling to get back to reading and thinking about photography. Also spent some time catching up on C&N email. One student posted his frustration with the subject – something that I can sympathise with, so I wrote back and said so. It’s not easy to pull yourself up by your bootstraps (do boots have straps anymore?) and get moving again after a setback. Some students call it “losing your mojo”. Well, it’s a scary thing. I’m just lucky that I don’t depend on my photography mojo to earn my keep, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble.

At the beginning of Part 3, there is a series titled Iron Man by Keith Greenough

There’s no complex symbolism here, it’s Keith showing a certain aspect of himself – that (presumably) he likes the iron man sporting event. Of course, without knowing more we have no clue whether this is true or not. Maybe he’s just dressing up? Still, it made me think about my own interests and how I could use them as a series of portraits.

Ran into a bit of a tar pit over the exercise titled “childhood memories”. I have strong ones of my passion for tennis during those years – I was a real tennis nut – but not sure how to depict it to answer the exercise. I simply don’t have a photo of those days and anyway, the exercise is about depicting a memory, not doctoring a photo. Have to think some more … photos of my tennis racket and a few balls seem banal beyond belief. To include me as an adult, well, not sure what to say about that – how boring. To try and pass myself off à la Trish Morrissey – well, I don’t have the clothes nor the long hair, unfortunately. Maybe something will inspire me. If nothing else, I have a whole new respect for Morrissey and her series Seven Years.


18 Nov

Last night was the end of year dinner for the motorcycle club of which I am a member. A great party, with great people. We left at about 1:30am – not the first to leave, but definitely not the last as well. Great memories.

Started to think about how the club and riding is an important part of my life. Living here in Switzerland is living in motorcycling  (and cycling) heaven, but what makes it great are the people in the club – the friendliness, the laughs, the sense of belonging.

Been thinking again about my interests and what they say about me and the approach taken by Keith Greenough. I recognise a link back to assignment 1 where I tried to portray multiple sides of myself, but it didn’t meet the brief.

19 Nov

One thing I’ve learned is that I struggle to keep a daily diary going. Not much thinking about photography this week – more just a case of work, work, work. Thinking more about retirement than anything else. Recognise that it’s escapism as much as anything else: wanting to live in a warm climate, close to the sea.

21 Nov

After the disaster of assignment 1, I’m feeling a bit tentative to say the least about assignment 3. The moto club might be an interesting angle since it’s definitely an important part of my life. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 17, so it’s not exactly a passing fad, but how would I represent it? I really don’t feel enthusiastic about having me in-shot, so what could I take from people like Nigel Shafran? Especially now, in the off season when nothing much is happening … not sure about this one at all.  Also: it’s part of me, but only a part, as it can ever be of a person. What about my other interests?

22 Nov

Looking for inspiration, I started taking a look at the blogs of my fellow students and came across Lynda’s Kuit’s blog whom I know in some sense because she is active on email and on the OCA forum.

Her approach to the assignment was interesting because it dealt with the feelings of being a migrant and about what “home” means. It’s relevant to me because I’m an étranger, living in Switzerland. I’ve been here for over 11 years, and there’s a sense of familiarity but every so often I’m reminded that I don’t come from here. I don’t share the same cultural background, I don’t have the command of the language that others have and this sets me apart. Mostly it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes it does …  It’s good food for thought.

23 Nov

Been thinking some more about the idea of living in a place where I don’t come from. The title of the Robert Heinlein book “Stranger in a Strange Land” came to mind. Also thinking about Dewald Botha’s series titled Ring Road which we met in part 2. I don’t pretend that the dislocation I sometimes feel is remotely comparable to living in China, but there is an element of similarity nevertheless, just to a lesser degree. I think there maybe something in there in the aspect of similar, but different – seemingly the same, but not in reality.

25 Nov

Started doing some research into photographers who have looked into this idea of “displacement” or of not fitting in. Having only limited success so far since I have found mainly work on migration related to places like Syria. I’m looking for something far more subtle – perhaps this is where the idea of ambiguity can be used as suggested by my tutor in my assignment 2 feedback. Not making much progress on this.

11 Jan 2018

My first entry for the new year!  And a long gap since my last diary entry. Not quite sure what happened, but have a suspicion that it’s called “life”. Was looking again at part 3 and the photographers mentioned in the section and about how they put themselves directly or indirectly into the picture. This led to thinking about how we depict ourselves to others through that most common method: the “selfie”. Despite detesting the term, it gave me the idea to look at the 1000 or so photos currently on my iPhone and see how many were selfies and how I’d depicted myself to others over time.

16 Jan 2018

Last idea shot down by my tutor. The directive is to keep a diary for 2 weeks and magically something will appear. It’s like saying that there’s only one road to creativity. Safe to say, this subject is pissing me off.

Maybe “a day in the life”?  How boring.

Been thinking about Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up.  It occurred to me that I could build on this by taking an automated photo at exactly the same time over a number of days. What’s there, is there. Nothing contrived. This seems to me to be kind of interesting as it would be an intimate portrait of an aspect of my life. Certainly, it would be mainly in the self-absented genre, but it would depend on what was happening. If I happened to be in the area, so be it. It would kind of cross over into a candid camera domain. Food for thought.

17 Jan 2018

Been looking through Susan Bright’s book “Auto Focus”. To say that it’s an odd collection would be an understatement. Some of the people mentioned in the course notes are included, but there are many additional ones. It struck me, at least on the surface, how many people want to be someone else, or at least, want to pretend to be someone else for a while. I wonder what that says about their self image? Thinking back, it seems like no-one in Bright’s book feels “well in their skin” or why would they go to such effort to appear to be someone else? It reminds me of a OCA forum discussion about the fine line between self-portraiture and narcissism. It seems to me that, for many (most?) of the photographers in Bright’s look, that line has been left a long way behind.

I’ve been thinking that I’d really like to try adding text to my images. I have in mind the approach taken by Sophie Calle and Karen Knorr. Having seen some of Knorr’s images at Paris Photo 2016, I know first-hand the power that text adds, especially when it works more as relay than as anchor text.

As an experiment, and following the approach of Washing Up, I setup my camera on a programmable timer to fire off at 1pm every day for 2 weeks. Results below. Have come to the conclusion that this doesn’t do it for me. While it may be part of the genre, I think it can be weak and says nothing.

18 Jan 2018

I’m starting to think that most of the self-portraits I have seen are pretty ho-hum. Liz Wells in her book Photography: A Critical Introduction, quotes the work of Ori Schwarz who examined the use of the modern digital ‘selfie’. Schwarz sees the ‘selfie’ as currency in fragile social interactions, a means of overcoming the absence of any other kind of social or cultural capital. Participants are subject to public scrutiny and possibly stigmatisation instead of celebrity — as Schwarz puts it ‘extracting value from your body is a risky game’.  I can’t help but think of the links between Schwarz’s comment and much photographic self-portraiture.

25 Jan 2018

Resolved that I will try to represent my interests in a similar way to Penn: motorcycling, cycling, cigars, wine, cross-country skiing, …  Maybe I could add text as well as an experiment?

28 Jan 2018

Thinking some more about this … what if I tried a montage of all these things? One option would be to take a single shot with everything, or another would be to overlay the images in PhotoShop. Rather than a strict “Irving Penn” approach, the message would be “I am all these things at the same time, and more …”. That seems somehow more interesting than a number of one-interest-at-a-time mug shots. Food for thought.

18 Feb 2018

Over the last week, this assignment has been weighing heavily. The idea came to mind of a “non portrait”. I had in mind an image containing movement, almost negating the idea of a portrait having at least a passing similarity. Today, I resolved to give it a try.



David Bate: Looking at Portraits

Via Chas Bedford’s C&N blog (see here), I tripped over a reference to David Bate’s 2009 book titled Photography: The Key Concepts. There is a chapter titled Looking at Portraits which is particularly relevant for C&N Assignment 3. What follows is part summary, part reflection on the contents of the chapter.


The first section discusses the idea of identity and Bate makes the point that “portraits fix our identity in what is essentially an art of description”. Although there are myriad uses for portraits, put quite simply, the portrait says “this is how you look”. He notes that “the early commercial industry of photography was dominated by the development of studio portraiture” because people wanted “likenesses”. The demand was immense and focused strongly on the fixed studio where “clients [could] see themselves in a picture as they wished to appear”.

After discussing different types of portraiture, Bart ends the first section of the chapter by stating:

“What all portraits have in common, in their overlapping and different ways, is the central issue that the portrait is a means employed to establish the identity of a sitter, regardless of whether they are viewed as a social problem or a human being with positive features”.

Elements of a Portrait

Bart puts forward the notion that almost all portraits are made up of four key elements: face, pose, clothing, location. He notes that different types of portraiture use these components in different ways – for example, the face might be emphasised and the other three reduced in importance or be practically non-existant. He states that “in effect, the use of the four elements (face, pose, clothing, location) and their combined relation in the picture are what organizes the rhetoric of a portrait”.

These four elements form a useful language for thinking about portraits. But what do they say about self-absented portraits such as Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up? It seems to me that they’re not so useful in such an extreme example where only location plays a role.

Bate argues that we “read” all of these elements. That is, we observe, interpret and take meaning from them. For example, he states that “just as the expression on a face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude and social position”.

Ad for Kodak Brownie – Eastman Kodak Company

In the section discussing pose, Bart makes the observation that passport photos and police mug shots have a similar aim: to be as objective as possible. The flat lighting and lack of a smile are meant to reduce subjective differences and any empathic identification with the subjects. He goes on to suggest that “the ‘smile’ (a rarity in the history of painting) emerged in photography as a popular convention precisely to signify the willing – ‘happy’ – participation of the sitter ‘to-be-photographed'”.

This is an interesting observation, but I do wonder at what influence marketing has had towards making the smile almost ubiquitous.  When I think about the early advertisements for cameras which came from Kodak which stressed the happy, fun aspects of photography. These early ads typically contained a happy family and very often showed smiling people, plainly delighted with their new Kodak camera. This would be an interesting topic on its own to investigate.

Reading Portraits

In this section, Bart argues that we can only go so far with “reading” portraits. The four elements give us a language, however we are very limited by surface appearances. Even if there is written material to provide a context or anchor the meaning of a portrait, we are still left with only a “surface” with which to make up our own minds.


Bart asks us what do we see when we look at a portrait? He asserts that we recognise a human figure and that this recognition gives us a kind of pleasure. He gives examples such as seeing the photo of a loved one, or suddenly meeting someone seen a long time ago. He argues that this re-cognition, or the return to something already known, is the return to a pleasure already experienced in the past. It’s effectively the repetition of a pleasurable moment.

He goes on to say that “in portraiture we probably encounter three general categories of people, all of which entail different aspects of recognition”: familiar, unfamiliar and the known.

The familiar category includes family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. These images are often circulated in the personal realm such in family albums, desktops and these days probably most often on smart phones.

The known category includes people who exist as a “discursive knowledge”.  That is, they might be familiar to us, but we do not know them in the sense of the familiar category. Examples include famous (and infamous) people (celebrities, stars, politicians, criminals). These people (who may be fictional – Bart uses the example of James Bond) appear in magazines, newspapers etc. – they are very much in the public eye and in that sense, they are known to us.

Bart states that the familiar and known categories “can be seen as comforting, since they repeat, in different ways, figures who are already ‘images’. The pleasure is in seeing the familiar and known again and again”.

The unfamiliar category is the interesting one. These are people who are either ignored, or if they are shown, it is in ways which don’t fit with their self-image. An example which pops to mind are the many photos of the homeless over the years, extending almost to exploitation. This point is expressed very well in a PDN Online interview with Robert Shults. Those photographers who take taken the time to get to know and collaborate with individuals rather than the amorphous entity we call “the homeless”, have presented images which correspond to their actual identities. An example would be Sam Wolson’s project This Life I Lead.

Bart notes that “photographers who are conscious of representing the unrepresented in new ways, which do correlate to their actual identities in some way, is of much value – and this is often where innovations in portraiture are achieved, precisely because they interrupt the comfortable economy of the same”.

In the last part of this section, Bart argues that we get pleasure from recognising someone in an image – be it a loved one or someone famous or infamous. He goes further to suggest that we also get pleasure from the “uncanny impact” of a stranger’s face (the unfamiliar).


In this section, Bart commences with pointing out how the viewer of an image is unavoidably connected with the camera’s position in the scene – the two are interlinked. We are effectively constrained by the original positioning of the camera. Bart calls this “identification with the camera” and gives cinematic examples which exploit this aspect – for example, “a ‘thrilling’ point-of-view shot, hurtling down a cliff”.  We see many examples of this in sports and leisure activities which have been aided by the production of lightweight, waterproof cameras such as the GoPro and others.

A key aspect is identifying with something or someone. That is, we identify ourselves as being like the person in a portrait. Bart points out that this likeness might only be a fantasy and may never be fulfilled, but nevertheless there “a visual satisfaction in the fantasy of identification”.

He goes further to suggest that there are four types of identification when looking at portraits:

  1. “With the camera, as viewer.
  2. Of the person depicted (recognition).
  3. With the person (or object) depicted.
  4. With the look of the person(s) in the picture at us or other characters in the picture.”

Just from an intuitive point of view, these types of identification make sense. In the domain of marketing, it is number 3 which is perhaps dominant – the desire to be like the person and perhaps to experience their surroundings (luxury, exotic location etc.). Bart doesn’t expand on the 4th point, but I take it to mean the expression on the person’s face, or perhaps their clothes etc. Of course, this then links back to the earlier section on elements of a portrait: face, pose, clothing and location.

Returning to my earlier example of Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up where I argue only location plays a real role of the four elements, I can see that the identification aspect is probably key. We all have washing up and we can identify with the domestic situation and even with the captions of what was eaten that resulted in the washing up.

Narcissism and Looking

In this somewhat complex section, Bart refers to Freud’s theories about how we view ourselves from infancy and the implication that we look at portraits as a kind of reflection of ourselves. He states “in this respect we might see that a central gratification of portraiture is precisely an address to the imaginary question: am I like this person or not?”. From this basis, he moves onto the idea of projection which also affects how we view portraits.


Bart assets that “in ‘projection’, the viewer casts off uncomfortable feelings, which arise in themselves, and relocates them within another person or thing”. He gives examples of the projection of feelings about a father or mother onto another person who might serve as a substitute such as a father or mother. He argues that the same projection occurs when viewing a portrait.

Thomas Gainsborough: Self-portrait (1759)

I’m not sure why Bart only mentions uncomfortable feelings, because I believe that we can project all sorts of feelings onto others. For example, maybe a person reminds us of someone we like and rightly or wrongly we attribute (project) those feelings on that person.

Bart goes on to suggest that certain types of portraits (be they paintings or photographs) “invite the spectator to fill in the missing details”. At this stage he is writing specifically about the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough. He quotes Joshua Reynolds as stating that the “‘striking resemblance in Gainsborough’s portraits is achieved by leaving ‘many important features undetermined”.

This kind of projection is, I believe, us providing the narrative around the image. Classical portraiture often situated the subject in a fantasy landscape which could be some kind of idealised rural ideal or perhaps an exotic location, all designed to provoke our internal story telling and identification with the sitter. The “missing details” may be about the wealth and social status of the subject or about their profession, such as a ship’s captain.

The Blank Expression

Bart commences this final section of the chapter with a discussion of the “enigmatic” expression on Da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa. He states that the expression comes from a painting technique called sfumato, whereby the features are slightly smudged. Apparently, this technique encourages us to project our own feelings onto the image and to “see” them reflected. Bart states that the painting draws us in to an “intimacy” which is caused by what we want to see. 

In the photographic world, there are techniques such as soft-focus or selective lighting which also increase ambiguity of meaning so that the viewer is somehow free to impose their own meaning.

Bart argues that the opposite can also apply. He cites the large, high resolution portraits of Thomas Ruff which provide too much information. His point is that when overloaded with information, we don’t know what is important and what isn’t – we don’t know “what is signified and even less, what the subject is thinking”.

He ends with stating that the meanings of portraits are always “corrupted” by the process of viewing. The viewer always imposes their own interpretation, based on their relationship (identification) with the signifying elements in the image.


The four elements discussed by Bart: face, pose, clothing and location form a useful framework for discussing a portrait. They form the basic organising idea. Building on these elements, the different forms of identification are useful analytical tools which relate to the elements. For example, we can say things about how just changing the position of camera can change our interpretation. Finally the general categories of people (familiar, unfamiliar and known) give us ways of thinking about locating subjects and also give us ways to play with these boundaries by placing people outside of common context (for example: presenting George Clooney at home as the family man).


Bate, D. (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts. At: [Accessed 25 January 2018]