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 me....my wife, my family..., the books that I have read and am reading....my political thoughts....my lack of religion...my 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.
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.