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A3 C&N – preparation and diary review

Assignment 3 is an open brief, ‘Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.’ (OCA C&N, p89). Part Three, ‘putting yourself in the picture’, was not an area to which I was particularly looking forward, but I have very much enjoyed it and gained an insight into a genre which is new to me.


The journey began with my diary. The full diary is in a separate password protected post (see here) – OCA people should contact me separately for the password. Keeping the diary helped me to reflect on the things I do each day and on my identity – for the most part we are made by what we do and how we pass our time in the world.

A strong feeling I had while writing and on reflecting was how much the use of my time is dictated by my work and how restricted time and energy can be for other, often more enjoyable things. A large part of my work involves international travel and, when not travelling, planning for future journeys, or communicating with colleagues in distance countries by phone or email. While I have a rewarding job, I have a sense of my identity being taken over by travel and virtual communication – there is little time to put roots in a real community or develop local connections, hobbies or friendships.

In my world of international travel and communication, my identity is often projected virtually, through the computer – even ‘phone calls’ are over a computer network. As well as being anchored to a digital identity, I am tied to my passport, which validates my identity when travelling.

Concept development

I wanted my self-portrait to illustrate an identity crises – my real identity subsumed in the digital and travelling world – as Morris Gallagher (fellow student) was later to describe it, ‘the travelling-man’.

I had been experimenting with contextualising my own face as an exercise (see here) and for this assignment decide to attempt to combine a realistic photographic representation of myself with a virtual representation of my self, as a passport. For the backdrop to the image, I wanted to represent other digital aspects of my identity as a wall behind me – a replacement for the blank background of the photo booth used for ID photographs.


Susan Bright’s book Autofocus (for review see here) brought the self-portrait genre to life for me. I drew on influences as the self-portrait as auto-biography and the self-portrait as masquerade. I would act out the auto-biographical emotions (somehow!) and use a composite masquerade in my work. The book features the work of Aneta Grzeszykowska, who explains how she uses self-portrait as a tool for realising wider ideas, a kind of sketch pad or story-board.

The use of composites in fantasy-style self-portraits was a technical inspiration – I didn’t want to create an image in that genre, but something applying the techniques to create an image that could be perceived as real, even if a little unlikely. A degree of ambiguity that would raise curiosity in the viewer. I’d undertaken a couple of pieces of research in this area –  (links to separate posts) Natalie Dybisz’s book, self-portrait photography and web-based research on photographers working with self-portrait.


I had two sets of images to capture, one for my own face and a second for the background composite and the superimposition of a passport on my face.

For my own face, I set up a white-screen backdrop, a soft-box (over flash light) for a key-light, and a bounced flash with reflector for a fill-light. I set my camera (Fuji X-T1) to automatically shoot a series of 10 shots, with a 2 second gap in between, sat on a stool and posed. I checked the outcome at the end of each series and experimented with my pose and expression. In all, I took over 350 shots and I realised that I will never have a career as an actor! My original intention was to find one image for the self-portrait, but while photographing myself I came up with the idea of a sequence of three showing a progression between, acceptance, denial and despair.

For the passport images (front cover, inside cover and a visa page), I used a 300 dpi colour photocopies and resized the images in Photoshop. For the images of digital ID (Facebook, Email, Twitter), I used high-resolution screen shots from my retina Macbook Pro, also resized in Photoshop.

The images used on the composite are included in a separate ‘contacts’ post – see here.

I made the composites in Photoshop. Key steps noted here:

  • Background – collage using layers of images and masks to reveal certain elements of the inside of my passport (background image). The ‘normal’ overlay mode was used for each layer but with reduced opacity.
  • Passport/tattoo-like effect. Crown Coat of Arms was isolated using a colour range selection and a fresh layer created with the coat of arms (CoA). CoA was transformed to fit the front of the face, spherised within a selection of the face outline, and then a dispersion filter applied (based on an image created from the front of the face). After some experimentation, I found the most effective over-lay type was ‘linear-burn’ – this created a tattoo-like effect and the possibility of being considered realistic.
  • Finishing – I used levels adjustments to align the tonality across the layers, a white opaque over-lay to unify the layers, and a separate empty layer to add shadow to the background where my head would have cast shadow.

I asked for feedback from fellow students through the OCA Facebook page (see separate post here), which was generally positive. However, I made a few refinements to the images after letting the images rest for a few days – I noticed that the ‘tattoos’ were not consistently aligned on the faces; mattered once I’d decided to make three images instead of one. Also the original background did not show clearly enough all components of the collage.


Culture.PL [website]. Aneta Grzeszykowska. Available from: http://culture.pl/en/artist/aneta-grzeszykowska#dziela [accessed 13.3.16]

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