Barthes on Portraiture

Posted on June 29, 2012


I have been questioning what I am trying to achieve with my self portraiture assignment. Earlier today I came  across this quotation from Roland Barthes.

“The PORTRAIT-PHOTOGRAPH is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, London, 1984, p. 13).

Barthes is presenting a view from the perspective of the subject. When making self portraits one is both photographer and subject so there is even more scope for schizophrenia.

I have used Barthes construct to help analyse the approaches I have been using with my ‘I am an Ironman’ self portraits.

With these portraits I have been trying to capture myself when I am ‘too tired to pose’ by shooting immediately after I have been exercising. By so doing I have been consciously trying to eliminate the ‘the one I want others to think I am’ dimension.

Also, by using a fairly deadpan formal construction for the portraits – 2/3 body shot facing square to the camera against a plain background – I have sought to eliminate any photographer driven expression or ‘the one the photographer thinks I am’.

This leaves two dimensions unaccounted for ‘the one I think I am’, and ‘the one he makes use of to exhibit his art’. The former is perhaps what I am trying to get to with the photographs, although I have also been using the self portraits as a means of personal exploration, i.e. photographing myself to see what this might tell me about myself.

On the question of which photographs are used in my art, so far I have made several photographs in each shoot and have selected one of set for inclusion in my final edit. Perhaps I should try to limit this edit process also by for example selecting the first shot from each shoot. As an exercise to see what this might mean I have shown below an example of the first frame and the selected frame from a recent shoot.

‘I am an Ironman’ self portraits contact sheet comparison

It looks to me as if my body language in the selected image is more posed. The hands on the hips could be seen as a conscious expressive gesture – though what it was aimed to express I have no idea. The reason I selected the image was because the image was slightly different from others I had made in the series and I wanted to introduce some variety in my poses. So I have in reality been exercising photographic editorial control.

This has been an interesting exercise. I want to pause and think about the what this means for my work, but I am moving towards the idea of always using the first frame.