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Belatedly, I am going to talk about my photo project with the ICA Boston last month.

Full instructions here. Quick summary: Take a self portrait. Then take a self portrait as someone who is not you. Then take a portrait that is halfway between the two. Examine the results. Which one is the most Art? Why?

For purposes of the ICA event, I was behind the camera. This was necessary for workflow. However, I functioned mostly as an adjustable-height fixed tripod and camera timer, often providing a verbal 3-2-1 countdown; the subject of the photo was completely in control of things like pose, facial expression, and costume. I provided a box full of hats, wigs, and props, which the subjects were invited to use or not use as they saw fit. They were briefed about the three photos while in line (a fast-moving line) and could see examples; they were thus able to plan ahead slightly.

It was a family day at the museum, so we took a 50/50 split of individual portraits and family portraits. There was very little difference in process; the only change in my behavior was the inclusion of the phrase "how do you relate to each other?" at the end of my first-photo patter. Otherwise, it went something like this: "Be you. Be who you are. Stand how you stand. Make the facial expression you make. Feel how you feel. Project who you are, the you that is most you."

Instructions for the second and third photos were much more terse: "Now, be not you, however you want to interpret that. Stand a way you wouldn't stand. Feel a way you wouldn't feel" and "Now be halfway in between the first and second photo. Be yourself but not yourself." The second photo usually involved a lot of dressing up and selecting props, and took the longest. Usually three or four elements would be tried and discarded before the final choice. (There was a mirror provided, but this was mostly unused: "feel" seemed to be the key determinant.)

Once the photos were taken, they were printed on a single sheet of paper, in black and white, in order. Upon retrieving and reviewing their photos, subjects were invited to share their thoughts on which were the most Art, sometimes with the clarifying question "which photo most belongs in a museum?" They could place their thoughts on the voting wall using post-its. Votes clustered around "me," "not me," and "halfway," but could be placed partway between.

Drafting tape was available so subjects could post their photographs on the voting wall as evidence if desired; these postings could be temporary, if they wanted to display their photos while they visited the galleries, but wanted to take them home when they left. There were also crayons and markers for drawing directly on the voting wall or on the photos.

Because of the setting of the exercise (the Institute of Contemporary Art), many parents used the opportunity to talk to their children about Cindy Sherman. However, I was attempting to address something larger and more subtle: the continuing and perhaps increasing ghettoization of photography in fine art circles.

A long explanation of what I mean )

It is not terribly surprising that there were not as many votes for "me" as there were for "not me" and "halfway." First of all, costumes are fun. Secondly, "not me" and "halfway" obviously involved more process, and they were more manifestly the authors of those portraits - they deliberated about their process, and it perhaps let them see themselves in a new light. It also takes a certain amount of guts to say "an unembellished photo of me is the height of art." Then again, part of it may be that in the first photo, most of them had not yet relaxed into the exercise, and did not take full advantage of its expressive opportunity.

But there were votes for each category, and votes on each of the margins. Many of the judgments were gut reactions along the lines of "it's fun" or "I just like it." Incidentally, some of the posing, especially in group portraits, was great, particularly in the "halfway" photos, where you could see the genuine affection between the people playing these roles. For all it's silly playfulness, it had an emotional core that was quite moving.

My favorite comment on the voting wall was: "The halfway photo is the most art, because it is hardest hard to be yourself and not yourself." I am not holding this up as the right answer, because there is not a right answer, or more accurately, I believe the right answer changes with each photo set. But this answer (1) sounds like even my phrasing, so clearly I have downloaded myself into an anonymous child, and (2) is a very accurate expression of what it takes to be a good actor, and why it is valuable. Anonymous kid: You are meant to be a director.

The only thing that made me sad was that some parents asked whether they needed to pay to be able to take their photos home, which struck me as strange at first - they're black and white printouts on low quality paper, part of an art exercise in which the subjects provide the execution and the meaning. Of course they can keep their own photos. But then I remembered that many "family friendly" locations, including theme parks and the Rainforest Cafe and the Boston Aquarium do exactly that - take your photo badly at the beginning and try to sell it to you when you leave. Always leaves a bad taste in my mouth at exactly the moment I was thinking I'd like to come back.

(Incidentally, I was not taking bad photos. I was taking flattering photos. Partly this is about knowing where to stand. Partly this is about timing. Partly this is about relaxing your subject - that speil I gave to set the stage during photo 1, which was serious but also funny.)

As for my own vote this time around: The most Art photo in the example I posted at the beginning was the photo of me as myself. It has a truth and liveliness to it that is missing from the other two photos. It is, in fact, what I would consider a highly successful portrait, that people who know me well would recognize as an expression of my central nature, and that people who don't know me well might find surprising and intriguing. In the second photo, I am playing a role I would never cast myself in; it is obvious I have no insight into this person. The third photo is worst of all: enough like me to seem like it might be a real portrait, while telling you a lie about who I am - presenting someone I would not want you to mistake for the real me.

Interestingly, this was also the response my friend Kate Wootton had to her self portraits; she is, like me, an actor/director, with a particular background and training around the question of photographic truth. The similarity of our reactions may be a coincidence, or a result of our training (at wholly different institutions in different countries), or it may mean that self-portraits make the difference. But it may also mean that actors understand, more than the general population, how much thought and construction goes into seeming like yourself.

I will be conducting the exercise again at the ICA on April 27.

* The MoMa is something of an exception. They have a massive film department which they take very seriously.


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August 2017



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