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