So here’s the rub. All portraiture, especially self-portraiture, becomes the exposed intersection of what we fear and desire most: being truly known and then, loved. I do not want a polygraph of the facts about you, but the truth. But it occurs to me that if I want to know you and you want to know me, it’s in the small moments that we will find our essence.
You would know me best by the disparaging way I look at my teeth when I floss, or the fretful way I appear when I balance my checkbook, or the prideful way I look at myself when I apply lipstick in my rear view mirror. If you could see my hand move soothingly across my daughter’s back as we say our prayers in bed at night, or even the way I tripticaly fold white warm towels pulled fresh from the dryer, you would begin to know me, really know me.
And I wonder how you would look when the wind moves across your face, or the deep the crease of your brow runs when you have been waiting in line longer than you think you should. Or how you hold your hands when you’ve made someone laugh. And you would probably crush me with the way you blow bubbles. I would begin to know you better than I did before I saw these things.
Portraiture captures and bears witness to the collection of joys, disappointments, fears and temptations of our inner landscapes found in moments like these. I do not want your mug shot: brown hair, cowlick, green eyes, mole on your chin, etc. and so forth. And I am unwilling at this point in my life to offer you mine. It’s in this humble vulnerability captured by light and film, paint and brush, or pen and paper, that we are no longer strangers to one another, but chosen despite our imperfections.
Telling you the visual tale of myself I know will not be easy. Actually, I have been avoiding it for years now. It’s not for the sake of vanity that I begin to paint a self portrait, but to see, really see this flesh God saw fit to put on this earth. I have the deep sensation of heaven intersecting with hell on earth. The brush becomes more like a sword than a tool for self expression. And so the battle begins as I put the loaded brush to paper.
The voices, the criminal, venomous voices, aren’t still for a second, but rage from their corner. I hear them, I hear them all. The crooked nose… “her nose is really crooked when you look closely” … the wrinkled flesh on my neck, “why didn’t anyone tell me to moisturize and apply sunscreen here too!”…. the eyelids, “dear God, plastic surgery is out of the question.” And the most robbing of all “What the hell are you doing?” The critical slashes swell to the surface and over flow in a pool of self-avoidance.
I push forward, one portrait after another, despite the mounting evidence of my inability to cut through the bile of self-loathing.I know on the other side of the mirror is the marrow of myself…and it has nothing to do with appearance. Advancing in truth by not allowing the voices any ground, I discover there is victory in just showing up for the battle.
In an essay entitled “Borrowed Dogs,” which was adapted from a talk given by Richard Avedon, one of history’s most noted portrait photographers, describes how his family paid careful attention in the planning and execution of family photographs:
“We really planned them. We made compositions. We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that weren’t hours. We borrowed dogs….All of the photographs in our family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were, and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.” Museum of Modern Art, New York.