SOME OF THESE PARTS OF ME YOU'D WISH TO NEVER SEE
At the Art Lab, this month we processed a visual prompt: a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait:
This a was a big deal.
First off, if the thought of starting off a visual prompt sounds normal to you, just know that it felt highly unusual. So I might have dived into creative work right away, but I needed to translate what this image meant to me into words to be able to truly process the prompt.
Second, Van Gogh’s footsteps are pretty big to walk into, if you see what I mean. Sure, he sold about as much as I did so far in his artist’s lifetime, but we can all agree that his legacy is massive.
And third, as much as Vincent painted his own self leaving us with an impressive record of what he looked like, he never let anyone take a photographic portrait of him, out of spite for the photographic medium, which, for a group of photographic artists, feels truly disconcerting.
Of course I was excited at the prospect of diving into a self-depicting piece of work, as someone who practices self-portraits. But in order to find meaning in this prompt, I looked beyond the image, and questioned his own practice of self-portraiture, as well as that of other artists, to find a way to connect it with mine.
1. What this prompt means to me
According to specialists who know way more than I do, Van Gogh used to paint himself mostly to practice his skills. Models were (and still are) expensive and from the moment he decided he was to live from his art, he was strapped for cash (can’t we all relate?) and he had to be resourceful with every penny his brother Theo sent his way. So to test ideas and practice skills he used he modelled for his one paintings. And the advantage of that was that it allowed him freedom to experiment and discover new techniques, without worrying about how much this was costing him per hour.
But maybe there was more to it than simple practice and thriftiness.
Frida Kahlo used to say that she painted herself because she felt alone and it allowed her to express and process her pain, physical and mental. I personally relate to that sort of catharsis, and Vincent Van Gogh is someone who notoriously struggled with his mental health, so painting himself might have been a way to process complex emotions and inner pain he could not deal with otherwise.
And portraying your own self is a powerful act of self-representation. Think about it: what did Rembrandt look like? Or Robert Mapplethorpe? Or Vivian Maier? How will we remember Cindy Sherman?
What comes to mind, immediately, is how they chose to portray themselves. There might be other portraits, but top of mind is the images these artists made of themselves. Whether or not posterity was on Vincent’s (or these other self-portraitists’) mind, the effect is undeniable.
And this notion of presenting the self to a potential posterity brings me to one last thought this prompt gave me as I processed it with the other artists in The Art Lab, a thought that’s also related to how Vincent Van Gogh used to work: who is the self-portrait for, besides the self? And how do we, self-portraitists, care for it, archive it, and pass it on to the intended audience?
The reason I think this is relevant to how Van Gogh worked is that they are still finding, to this day, hidden work (last of which was actually a self-portrait) behind other paintings he made. Last summer, indeed, x-rays revealed that beneath layers of cardboard and glue, at the back of a very well known painting from his early work in the Netherlands, was yet another self-portrait.
The art community is of course thrilled and excited at this discovery.
But I cannot help but also feel a little horrified at what was done to this painting. Of course I’m looking at this with a century of hindsight, and I could not possibly judge Vincent’s sister-in-law who seems to be the most plausible explanation for how the painting got destroyed. It would seem that after Theo’s death she sold a few paintings, including this portrait of a peasant woman, and to make the painting sturdier she might have glued it to backboard material.
And yet, despite those mixed feelings, the fact that some of Vincent’s work is still hiding in plain sight is truly incredible. This is one of the most revered, studied, examined artists in the entire history of art, one that left us with his own commentary of his work (in the form of a correspondence with his brother), and we’re still not done revealing work from his hand. Truly a marvel.
So again: who are these works meant for? And what responsibility do we, as artists, have to care for and archive our own work? Who will find meaning in our documentation of our lives in the future?
2. My own practice of self-portraiture
Before I go any further, I need to tell you the story of how self-portraiture is the reason I came back to film-photography, and they’re also how I learned to be a confident photographer.
I need to take us back to those dark years of the pandemic. The world stopped, we stayed home, there were no more gatherings, and everything that was good and healthy for our overstretched selves got cancelled. To me, personally, that meant no more swimming, no more yoga, and no more drawing naked human bodies from life (and honestly, I’m still to hop back on either of those immensely beneficial hobbies). And in February 2021, after a year of waiting for things to maybe reopen in a few weeks, I decided to get ahead of things and to do something about this. That’s when I challenged myself to make one self-portrait a day for the entire month, using whatever technique and medium I felt like playing with, and sometimes I was happy, sometimes not, but that really was not the point. I’d made it easy for myself, February is the shortest month after all, but by the end of the month I was starting to resent my stubborn commitment.
And that’s when I unearthed my old polaroid.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a camera person, but that, in that particular moment, triggered something in me. The next day the local thrift shot posted an auction on instagram for a film camera (this was locked down Ontario, we adapted), and I bought it. The rest is history.
Well, only kind of, because I’d grown up with film and had kept shooting film later than most, but this time I was learning, truly learning, everything about film, starting with how to develop the thing myself, because I could not be bothered with mailing it anywhere, especially during repeated stay-at-home orders. Before long, I’d gotten myself a strobe, and I started experimenting in the wildest and weirdest possible ways, and learning how to use my tools, at every step of the process (scanning being its own beast).
So yes, I’m a street photographer, I document what I see, but I also get alone in my studio and shoot my heart away, testing the limits of what I can and cannot do with my tools, with me as my own subject, and I still do this to this day.
I do it when I want to try something and I’m not sure how or why, but I also do it when I feel particularly icky: When I had a falling out with my mother in law, I went there, when my step-mother’s intrusiveness got me to cancel my summer in Europe, I went there, when my mother and I irreparably burnt bridges, I went there (I know how this looks, I’m aware I seem to have serious issues with women of a certain age, or what could qualify as mother figures, but that’s a complicated conversation and also another point). And every time I experimented with something different.
So it’s clear that I do these self-portraits for myself, for pushing my understanding of the craft I chose, but also for cathartic purposes.
But it’s not just that.
I also do these, because if I don’t, there won’t be a record of myself I’m happy with. I feel so awkward in these group pictures people love to do on holidays, I feel so awkward handing my camera over to someone else, I really do, but that feeling disappears when I’m in charge. And I want to exist in my family’s memory, whether it’s for my descendants to remember what I looked like, or some stranger finding photos decades away and making up a wild story about this crazy person yelling at a camera.
So for this month’s prompt, the following is what I did, and I know it’s weird and complicated and probably makes little sense, but that’s who I am, so I’m fine with that.
3. Some of these parts of me you'd wish to never see
The first thing I did for this months prompt was to take a self-portrait.
I wore a straw hat, threw some flowers in the picture, and posed next to my other large format camera (the one I only use as a prompt) to pretend I was actually making a photograph, all meant as a wink to Vincent Van Gogh’s own aesthetic choices, but in my own way.
Of course, my curious cat Lula photobombed it, but I was fine with that, she’s family.
I shot it on 4×5 large format film, because it’s beautiful, because I develop it when I have four images to reveal (and not 12, and not 24, and not 36), and because I had vague plans to intervene on the negative directly (read “destroy it”).
However, when I developed the image, I couldn’t bring myself to it. So I scanned it first, and then made some darkroom prints (that’s actually what I did first, a contact print with chemicals that had gotten bad, that gave me exactly one kind-of workable print), and I colorised it.
Print colorisation is something I’ve been wanting to try for the longest of time, but hadn’t brought myself to doing yet. The colorising wasn’t great (especially the face, as you can see I lost patience) and by then I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Another thing I’d had on my mind for a long time was learning to make positive transparencies with black and white. Buuuuut, I quickly realised I didn’t have the chemical patience to do it, trying and erring over and over until I got a satisfactory result, mixing chemicals I wasn’t even sure the procurement of was possible, etc.
Not to mention the fact that I already had an image I was happy with. And that’s when it struck me: I could make a contact print on film, and it would make a positive. So I did.
The exposure wasn’t perfect (quite far from the beautiful scan I shared above), but it worked, and my goal was to rework it anyways, so it didn’t matter. I scratched it first, to accentuate highlights, then I painted colour directly on the transparency with some watercolour inks I’d thrifted months back, and finally I doodled over it with a black pen to accentuate blacks and shadows, and to give the transparency a drawn quality.
What I liked about the transparency was that it required some form of action to be revealed: it needed a light source behind it to be appreciated. And that echoed nicely how sometimes the art is hidden and needs to be revealed by an action of the viewer. But I’d gotten into some very elaborate and quite complicated plan involving a vintage moulded frame, some other piece of art exposed in the front of the frame, and the transparency in the back of the frame, with a light source built behind it that could be turned on to reveal the image. And while I still like that idea a lot, the truth is that it was a little pointless and way too complicated for this time of my life – I had to make (or find) some other piece of art to frame, and that alone felt overwhelming.
So as I was playing with ways to simplify my idea, I settled on the plan to build a lamp, that would also serve as a treasure box, a keepsake for other self-portraits. I found the box at Joann, and personalised it. The light source is a flat led that looks like a small light table I found at the Home Depot.
I’m still working on collecting prints and written records that I feel qualify as self-portraits, and I’m hoping I can keep doing it as time passes, but for now it’s a start, and I hope that one day someone finds it and wonders what this is. Could my kids appreciate its contents when I die? Will they forgive my moods if they see my struggles?
And after that, I hope someone might stumble upon this odd little box and wonder: who was that woman in these weird photographs? what was she doing? what’s her story? shall we make it up?