A studio lighting session and thoughts on self portraits/representation

I was lucky enough to be invited to share a studio lighting session with OCA student Holly Woodward at a great local studio, run by a woman with a passion for working with other women in photography. My studio experience was virtually non-existent and my lighting experience only marginally better. At the time of saying yes, I thought it would be a chance to start building some studio skills and an interesting diversion from the A2 housework fairies. Writing this day after, I can say yes, it was both of these, but it’s also opened a relevant and timely can of worms about A3 Self portrait.

In the session we worked with continual lights and got to use barn doors, honeycombs, gels, huge softboxes and stripboxes with a grid. We worked through many different types of lighting, including a section on the much harder, direct lighting that compliments men in that it renders them more craggy and worn-looking, whereas that kind of lighting is not generally regarded as flattering to women. I might dispute that though, I’m not sure that women are universally best served by always being softly lit and diffused, nor am I sure that universal grittiness and cragginess is doing all men a favour. When I look at my set of images of Holly I don’t feel that any instance of lighting is particularly better or worse, they are all different and represent her in different ways. Interestingly, the lighting that was described as the most unkind to women, was the one that brought Holly’s razor sharp cheekbones to life. I wasn’t expecting a lighting workshop to end up making me question how women are portrayed to society and yet here I am again…. I’m tiptoeing around the issue of should portraits be flattering, or interesting. Can they be both? Do they need to be either? Does it depend on the purpose of the portrait? Here’s a set of Holly under different lighting.

I have to own up to being well outside my comfort zone. Not just technically, but with being photographed too. My hair was everywhere and I didn’t feel groomed. I never feel groomed. Back on the normal side of the camera, I struggled with the fact that I was completely in charge of the environment and that I could ask Holly to move, change position… Looking at my images there are some with the edge of another background in that I could easily have not included. I am used to working with props, with putting things where I want them, with trying out different things, yet it was so hard to achieve the same mindset with a person in the frame, despite Holly’s active reminders. That’s a big learning opportunity right there.

Today I’ve pulled Susan Bright’s Auto Focus off my bookshelf and it’s now sat next to me on the sofa waiting for me to accept the inevitable and sacrifice the rest of the day to it. The most comfortable that I felt in front of the camera yesterday was when I was stripped to the waist, sat with my back to the camera, whilst Holly explored the ability of a particular lighting set up to highlight muscle tone (ha!). I think backs are interesting, especially for women. They are our spines, carrying us through life, and generally hidden from view, especially as we age. But nakedness and photography and feminism don’t always make easy bedfellows for me. This leads me to some of the posts that I’ve read in various OCA fora from people struggling with the self portrait assignment. As they are both private environments and this is a public blog I won’t quote directly here, but I’ve just printed the entire threads to go through when I need to take a break from Auto Focus. Reservations are often around concern about where the border lies between narcissim and self expression. I honestly think that most of us are nowhere near that border. I think my concern is around the internet and my young daughter, but then I have to remind myself that there’s nothing to stop me making the work anyway, there’s no obligation on me to make any of it publicly accessible. Plus, of course, she’s bound to be embarrassed by me no matter what I do. Cover me, I’m going in…

and I’m still nibbling around the edges. I had a conversation with @drewkabi on Instagram, who tells me that self portraits are his favourite genre. I can see why, his work, despite drawing on the darkest of experiences, is colour-filled, exuberant and expressive. His self portraits actually are portraits of his “self” rather than the limited facial portraits that we tend to associate with the term, or the coy photographer self portraits where we photograph our shadows, ourselves obscured, anything but ourselves. But why not? Our selves are so much more than our faces. On my face, the scars from prolonged teenage acne now mingle with lines and wrinkles that I recognise from my mother. My jawline is sagging but my bottom isn’t (thank you climbing wall). They’re both me, though. I find myself thinking of Sarah-Jane Field’s work where she applied snapchat filters to photographs of herself – see here https://ocasjf.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/excercise-3-3-the-act-we-act/ . Very interesting, thought provoking reading.

So at the end of the post I still haven’t put any photographs of me. Neither have I mentioned the fun we had with hand-made hats at the end of the shoot. I can see why people make self portraits with props, with paint, with prosthetics, with costumes… it was somehow easier to put the hat on and be someone else, or at least the steampunk version of me. There’s another one of me with more back visible, somehow it feels very exposing. I don’t feel comfortable sharing it publicly, yet I do want to go back (ba dum tish) and shoot more like it. Photos of me are by Holly Woodward whose OCA Identity & Place blog can be found here.

Finally, thank you to Alley at Pozers Studio, and Holly for inviting me along. I shall definitely be going back. Pozers Studio



10 thoughts on “A studio lighting session and thoughts on self portraits/representation

  1. Holly Woodward January 25, 2018 / 1:03 pm

    Have fun. And I had a great time using you as my model too.

  2. Stefan J Schaffeld - Visual Artist January 25, 2018 / 9:28 pm

    Very thoughtful and you hit post, Kate. Enjoyed reading it, makes me think. Light in studio gendered? Grittiness and cragginess as male? What images are we produce to show what reality? Your writing made me aware how different photography and painting is. Self portrait painted are so much different – is it because oneself is doing the self portrait? Are self portraits in photography than more portrait done by somebody else of one? Do photographer photograph themselves alone – nobody else there? That’s what we painters do. Overall, I can relate to your consciousness and carefulness – how to be ‘presented’. One question of you don’t mind: what differs from posting images of yourself made by others, posted images on sites of others made by others, posting images of others by you on your site? I am sensible to these vulnerable questions and perhaps not here? I thank you for your insight – and very glad for you and Holly to have such good times together in reality

    • Kate January 25, 2018 / 9:58 pm

      Questions that I’ve been asking myself too! Thank you.

      The light in itself isn’t gendered but the way in which it’s used can be gendered. For men, it’s more acceptable to use a stronger, more direct light to show the “texture” of the skin, of the stubble or beard, the reality of “imperfections”. Whereas for women, the studio norm is a much softer more diffuse light, eg from a softbox (a light inside a big fabric case). Our “imperfections” are glossed over, homogenised, removed. I would love to challenge this, but equally I don’t much like the bags under my eyes… you see my problem! At the extreme end of the scale it’s like the differences between photographs of James Bond (esp Daniel Craig) and photographs of the Bond girls.

      There’s something different in the dynamic of self-portrait photographs. Instead of the viewer, the subject and the photographer all being different, the subject and the photographer are the same person. The boundaries change, the perspective somehow changes. When I look at the work in the Susan Bright Auto Focus book (which is definitely worth a look if you’re interested in this area) I feel somehow discomforted, slightly not at ease.

      In Auto Focus, some photographers have made self portraits with other people in the frame too. Trish Morrissey inserted herself into family groups at the seaside, taking on the clothing and identity of one of the women in the group. Others, like Tomoko Sawada take on multiple identities themselves within a single image (she did a school photograph with herself as every single child).

      My self portrait work so far has largely been with photo booth machines. I don’t know why I should feel differently about an image taken by me than one taken by someone else. I suppose it might be to do with controlling the work, with knowing more about why I’m making it? I do know that I’m very keen to explore further and that the studio environment feels like a safe space in which to do this work.

      Does that help? 🙂 And yes, I am very fortunate to have met Holly via the OCA and to be able to share activities like this with her. It makes such a difference to my studying.

      • Stefan J Schaffeld - Visual Artist January 25, 2018 / 10:17 pm

        Thanks Kate – I would challenge imperfection vs vulnerability vs glossy surface appearance – effects and cause – figure and ground. I think I will be quite cautious next time in a photo studio / or ask some fellow students I can trust to take some images ( for external use – part of the game I think)
        Sorry for my ignorance – but do I understand right that self portrait in photography is not taken a picture with a self timer (2 or 10s) and than sit down ? The person behind the camera is not the same as the person being photographed? For me it is very clear that PhotoBooth had a different impact to being photographed by someone else. Yes, control may it be. In painting it is totally different to paint yourself or somebody else. Will look for Susan Bright. When I painted last year for 9weeks each day a self portrait it had more to do to see myself, but it was also a distanced effort. I looked for visual information – shapes forms contrast color etc. a bit desinterested – what if you would make one image a day of yourself (no witnesses) early morning , raw , pure with a self timer? Just for you – and look once a week at seven images and discern difference?

      • Kate January 26, 2018 / 9:57 am

        I think a self portrait is one where you are both in the image and retain control of the framing and when the shutter is released to take the photograph. So you could take it with a self timer, or a cabled or radio controlled remote shutter release, or by setting the camera to take a number of photographs at pre-set intervals. They don’t have to be with the subject sat down – I suppose my climbing photographs on EYV were technically self portraits too. That’s an interesting idea about taking regular self portraits, thank you. I need to get the fairies out of the way then I can give that a go.
        There have been some terrific series of self portraits made with photobooth machines, I’ll come back later and add links. Thanks again Stefan for reading and commenting, it’s good to think in more depth about this.

  3. Catherine January 26, 2018 / 11:44 am

    All of the portraits are interesting in their own way – guess as well that how you create the and with what lighting depends on what you want to say about yourself or the other person. None of us is the same all the time anyway – we go through so many emotions daily and these show on our faces in one way or another.
    Great as well that you shared the session – it makes it more fun and lessens the embarrassment. That sounds a wonderful studio to go to.

    • Kate January 26, 2018 / 8:29 pm

      It was such a friendly and intimate space. A terrific introduction to studio work 🙂

    • Kate January 26, 2018 / 8:28 pm

      It’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me. Thanks Sarah-Jane.

  4. Kate January 27, 2018 / 8:00 pm

    Comment received from Drew Birskeugh by email and reproduced with his consent.

    Hey Kate,

    So I decided to email just in case you didn’t want your blog cluttered with my nonsense. A great post, if you ask me. I really hope you explore self-portraiture further… it’s so interesting to see another person’s take/exploration. Anyway, my thoughts:

    I really love your point about whether portraits should be flattering/interesting, or both, or either. I’ve thought this many times… of course, I try not to create a portrait that isn’t interesting… and, if I’m honest, I try not to create a portrait that’s unflattering… that said, I do sometimes find myself questioning how honest my self-portraits are—meaning they’re constructed in such a way as to make me feel comfortable with what I see. But then, who says self-portraits have to be honest on every level? Or even on any level?
    Which leads me to another great point: how props/costumes make self-portraits easier. I couldn’t agree more; I find that props/paint/costumes allow me to direct attention or, put another way, to move attention away from the things I’m uncomfortable seeing (bags beneath my eyes, lines on my face or, god forbid, a fat-roll on my stomach). Also, when I use props/paint/costumes, I feel as if I’m acting… as if the subject of the image isn’t really me… it’s kind of liberating to feel as if I’m playing a role/not being myself… it allows me to push myself that little bit further. I always remember Elina Brotherus saying to someone how her image I Hate Sex was picture and not actually her (if I remember correctly, the person she said that to asked her if she really hated sex).
    Sideline comment: I’ve always wondered at the value of self-portraiture for anyone but the photographer. Meaning would I hang someone else’s self-portrait on my wall? No, I don’t think I would. Moreover, would I hang my own self-portrait on my wall? No, I definitely would not (typical family-type snapshots excluded). I think that’s half the reason why I always try to photograph more than just myself when I make self-portraits. Meaning my self-portraits have to be about more than just me to satisfy my creativity; there has to be some deeper meaning… does that make sense? Also, I always try to add a level of anonymity to my self-portraits… I think it’s important for the subject to be fluid enough that someone else could read the image in the context of their own life/experiences.
    You made another great point about lighting (you always make great points, tbf). Who says grittiness/cragginess is doing men a favour? Ha. I agree. And I think my least favourite lighting for women is soft… there’s something so clichéd about it, if you ask me. It adds a level of romanticism to the image that I really find difficult to swallow… I prefer hard lighting whatever I shoot. Personal preference, I guess. BTW, I think the portraits of Holly are really great. For me, there’s no wrong lighting… there are just different types of lighting. And, for me, they all work well. Oh, and I really really love the image of your back/turned head. There’s an honesty to the image that pulls me into it… the lines of your hair/back… but then your pose ensures that I remain at a certain distance… sort of here I am, but don’t touch.
    It’s such a shame I haven’t found myself in a position to work with other people. Another reason why I make self-portraits (and possibly the only reason why I got into them in the first place) is because of the convenience. I’m always here and I can make as many mistakes as I want; my mistakes inconvenience no one but myself. For me, working with other people is the next-step I really have to take to advance in my photography.
    Again, a really thought-provoking post, Kate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.