Monday, 23 January 2012

Train your gaze - Assignment 2

Putting on a face.

The assignment calls for a self portrait without showing your face, but "face" has many meanings, many connotations and even many lives. We show different faces to different people and to differing versions of our lives - home, parent, work, friend, spouse, lover. Usually these "faces" are the outward expression of the various personalities expressed through our face - diligence, care, compassion and love. Our faces can change with emotion - "I love that look", "I almost didn't recognise you", "I hardly recognise you" - are expressions that work from the face and the "face" that the inner self wants to express.

Make-up, still largely the realm of the female especially in western society, seems to be as much about how to present oneself to the public, and therefore about self worth or lack of self-loathing. In the theatre, the use of make up has a double use. The reliance on lighting on stage has evolved, but essentially it is used to enable the audience to "see" the play (it has the added benefit for the players as it erects a "fourth wall"), but, especially as the strength of electric light has grown, the face needs to have help to find "colour" as the light washes the face with it's incandescent power. The actor also uses make-up to paint a mask, to change age, to become a baddie, to be a goodie, to change gender and so on. In other words the use of make-up as a mask to better become someone else.

It is with this in mind that I looked at how I could make a self portrait without showing my face. I thought about what it is that defines wife, my family..., the books that I have read and am political lack of aspirations?? I thought about these and thought that with these metaphysical elements I would be the only one to recognise me from them - this type of portrait would be so personal, so introspective as to probably be impenetrable to anybody else. So I decided on a physical model and then I thought about a mask and how I could adopt a mask to present myself, faceless. Women often say I need to "put on a face" before going out and meeting with their public, are they really saying I need to "put my mask on"?

The theatre is again where I have gone to find a route into this assignment. An actors wears the metaphorical clothes of another person in the character that they are portraying. An actor can feel the personality of the part they are playing by a number of means, not least of which is the donning of a costume and the wearing of make-up. Make-up erodes the personal identity of the actor, decouples them from the audience and alleviates some of the pressure to create a character. Being "made-up" readily allows the actor to move to a character displacement, to allow this other character to inhabit their body. When the actor looks into the mirror they are likely to see the character they are playing - not themselves. More difficult is when the character/writing leaves the actor without modification in any way, other than a little dusting and everyday clothing to make that transition, they tend to feel "naked"; a term that is used quite often behind the 4th wall. The pantomime Dame is a role - with its own mask - that I have adopted every other year for a little over a quarter of a century. Interestingly my first role in a Panto' was as the beast in Beauty and the Beast where I had to wear a full head mask! But it is as a Panto' Dame that I have thought about for this assignment. I asked the same make up lady who normally prepares me to make me up, although I always apply my own lipstick, and asked our costume supplier if they would loan me some costumes. Both obliged and the following photographs are the result.

It is as well I think to start at the beginning, or at least in this case, with the foundation garment. It is curious to note the gender reactions to this adoption of a "cross-over" role. I hadn't ever thought that this role was about playing a woman; whilst the role is a Dame, it is about a male playing the role of a male who dresses up as a woman (albeit very badly). For me the role is definitely not camp, although the role is generally one or the other dependant on who is playing the role. Men, in the cast, tend to treat me just as they would normally. Whilst the women seem to try and appropriate me into their camp, they tend to compare figures (always favourably against me), they often want to physically gauge the texture of my "falsies", 44 FF's by the way and filled with old tights. The women tend to view me in a queer halfway place. Whereas again, the audience know very clearly what I am and dish out all sorts of banter they would never dream of saying to a female. One other incidental piece of trivia associated with this piece of costume is about buying them. Marks & Spencer advertise within their lingerie section a personal measuring service. The first time I tried it, some years ago - I had my wife with me at the time - the flushed female shop assistant pointed to the tape measure as if to suggest I do it myself, whilst she beat a hasty retreat in the opposite direction. Two years ago when I went back there was a different shop assistant who was altogether much more obliging, she measured me and proposed several items for me to consider - she didn't though suggest I try them on in the changing room. One step too far methinks.

Left, post original edit. Pre-wig, pre completion of make up and use of blur to "de-capitate". Blur added as a post process.

Back to the assignment and back to basics. Technically I decided that I would light this with a couple of 1 metre soft boxes both slightly to the rear and each side of me. I then placed a white reflector on each side slightly in front of me, I knew this would provide some facial modelling, but it was always going to be a bit hit and miss as I was photographing myself. I set up the camera, a Nikon D3 and a 95mm lens set at f8 1/125th sec - found the focal area and moved between the two places after pressing the time delay shutter release. I did have a change of dress provided but decided that other than changing the wig I would keep it simple.

So what did I feel about the results and was I able to discover about myself?

It is clear that my face is there in the photographs, but I feel it is buried. There are some devices I have used to take my face and remove it. Firstly some of the poses are from unusual viewpoints, secondly I have tried to hide my eyes, always for me the most interesting facet of a face and thirdly, through post processing. The first few shots - with the bra and the side view have very little of "me", the first fits the assignment perfectly - no face - and the second it is not my figure, not my hair, not my clothes, I don't wear make up; they are another entity. But together they are the establishing shots, they put the rest into perspective. These photographs provide the viewer with all the information needed to assimilate the information embedded in the following images. The shot left where the eyelashes cover the eyes; as the eyes are for me the critical feature of the face, I decided to try and keep them from normal view as much as possible. Whereas the shot on the right has been ostensibly taken from underneath, in fact I am leaning back after trying to keep my head in the focus "zone". This is not an angle that many people would ever have of me and with the make-up it adds an additional remove to the portrait.

The most contentious are these, firstly they are the same shot, firstly one (right) being post processed and secondly it is a conventional portrait i.e. nearly full frontal face. But I am only considering the second as part of the assignment, the other image (left) is there to show the model would look without the edit. Deliberately I have clumsily "photoshopped" the image to make it more "beautiful", thereby removing "me" from the image. This subversion of the image and the political issues surrounding this type of editing has long concerned me. I know it is a process that has it's roots from the very dawn of photography, but never more so than currently with its association with self loathing and body fascism.

Both of these photographs have been added after the original post. Left, a view as if from behind, as if from the players perspective, looking to the audience. I had some problems to get the "face" in focus and allowing the back to be slightly out of focus. The hands are important and are part of the expressive tool set of the player and this Dame. Another advantage of these two additions is the emphasis on gender. Neither of these shots are in the least feminine.

And the paraphernalia of the Dame, important to bear witness to the encumbrances associated with me as a Dame to complete a portrait of this Dame. The shoes were second hand in 1989 when they made their debit on the stage and have been in every Panto since - they have been augmented since with other shoes; but these pinks get a new lick of paint every few productions. The other stuff being weighed down by the 44 double F's.

When I first read the assignment brief and thought about how I would go about fulfilling the requirement, I had thought that this idea would have had more profound outcomes. I feel a bit deflated now, maybe I didn't consider things widely enough. It is a portrait of the Dame not a portrait of me, but a portrait of the physical embodiment of me whilst I am the Dame. These two are so intertwined that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. I think I need to think this out all over again, but whether I get the chance (or the time) to recover this assignment I am not sure.


  1. I think you may be underestimating the success of these images John...from where I'm sitting...this I would say expresses more about you than you give it credit. The ones I think are particularly strong are the second and third...I like the subdued, introverted look which in itself is a contradiction to the flamboyant, verbose character of a dame...the fact you are a 'dame' suggests an extrovert confidence, and then photographing yourself in poses that juxtapose the dame's outward appearance, I think works really well. There is clearly a humorous aspect to these, but there is something else which I can't put my finger on too. I'm in no position to give advice John, but personally I think this series is very unique, personal and visually very strong. You talked about 'truth' on my blog a few weeks back which I've thought a lot about since...

    1. Thanks Penny. As ever it's the edit that caused the biggest headache. I had three or four more that I had thought about, they would have added to the narrative of the "Dameness", but I was concerned about putting too much in. There is a lot in what you say about character that would appear to me to be true... Perhaps I should re-blog and add the others? Your comments were very welcome. Thanks

  2. To me these images are excellent and there's a yearning about 5 and 6 which makes the Dame have a real personality. I haven't met you yet but only 'corresponded' as it were, so I can't say whether I see something about you that is intrinsic in your 'Dameness'. However, the fact that you choose to act the Dame from time to time, and have chosen it now as a self-less-portrait, hints at a hidden side of you. Introvert/extrovert, subdued/flamboyant etc.

    On another point - you certainly seem to be steaming along quickly with this Module John.


    1. Thanks Catherine, reading both yours and Penny's comments it would appear I have been exposed a little (I suppose that was what it was all about....). To your point, I don't feel an extrovert, rather I feel an introvert, but when I get on stage, not only as a Dame, it is the character that drives the performance. This is why I felt as I did about not showing my "face". Both sets of comments have given me a lot to think about.
      As regards your last point - I don't feel I am "steaming on" I feel as if I am running behind the train! So much to do, but even if I don't catch it up, the journey is a lot of fun.
      Thanks again.

  3. I think you have produced a very interesting set of images John. I saw it a little tiem ago but haven't commented before because I wanted to reflect and look at them a few times first.

    I think all the shots with you in them work very well. They are quite unusual and slightly uncomfortable, with a sense of unease somewhere in the mix. I am less sure about the clothes at the end as I am not sure that they suggest much by way of character in themselves. I wonder how they would have looked draped over or around a chair or make-up table, as if just cast off. Of course that would have needed more props and introduced a further dynamic which might not have worked. Overall I think its is a really strong set. I am not familiar with the brief you got and it will be interesting to see how the tutor feels you have responded to it.

    I do understand your feeling of letdown though. I have tried in the last year to make meaningfully portraits, going beyond the everyday, and always come away deflated. A part of me suspects that the attempt may be futile (but I don't plan to give up). Recently I have scanned some old family pictrues and was very pelased with some that I took with my first SLR. I have concluded that teh difference is that my memory of teh actual events and how people looked has faded, so that now the pictures supply new information, and refresh or even replace memory, while with the ones I am taking now the memory of the much more complex scene and person is still fresh. Perhaps a little distance is needed to appreciate such work? I look forward to continuing to follow your progress on this front, and to make some of my own.

    On the subject of portraits without faces - I saw this very interesting series today and thought of your work.

  4. Thanks for the comments Penny. With regard to the deflation comment, I think it is a personality issue I have! It happens with just about every piece of work I complete - at the end I come almost to loathe it, almost in direct proportion to the effort I ave applied to the image! I usually come around though from that position and think about it positively afterwards (well that's always the hope!). My most significant concern on this piece of work was the edit - there were so many that didn't survive the cull, because I am, I suppose, like most people introverted, and don't really relish my picture on view (whatever the camouflage). On stage it isn't me it's the character - whomever that may be.
    Most of the work that I've seen from fellow students that chimes with me has, to a large extent, been based on self analysis and exploration, which is why this particular module is for me both exciting and somewhat daunting. Our route of discovery and recognition of self doubt together with confidence issues can be confronted through this medium very well I think, after all the mirror is a fundamental in the process of photography. If I can offer any words of encouragement (from a novice in this particular process) it would be to continue to believe that the track you have chosen will lead to self enlightenment. I shall follow your progress with interest.
    Thanks also for the reference; I was aware of Tara's work and I was particularly interested in her "Twilight and Fables" set.

  5. Wow. First of all, I am very impressed with this bold move. The fact that you decided to shoot yourself in this light takes courage. I am almost tempted to agree with the idea that perhaps it's not really a self-portrait but rather a portrait of Dame. At the same time, I also think that perhaps this role is one which you can adopt from time to time with great abandonment so to speak and therefore you may be more comfortable with taking a self portrait of yourself as Dame rather than as John. Ok. I am going to stop now because clearly this is not about psychology and I am no expert! I think I can relate to what you have done because I find myself often feeling much more confident if I can hide behind another persona. Either way, you still went ahead and tried out this assignment while I am still thinking about and trying to come to terms with the fact that I may end up with something that I don't like. And when I mean like, it's goes much more deeper than whether these are pretty pictures or not.

    1. I had hoped to do more assignments from this book, some would be very challenging I think! I'll look to see what you try. I've just looked again at this work I did, I think I would do it slightly differently now, but not altogether different as I think the images still work for me.