Assignment 4 – Ex Nihilo – Self Portraiture

Assignment 4 requires a further exploration of one of the coursework exercises  on daylight, artificial light or studio light that 6-10 final images be created for submission. The coursework exercise chosen was Exercise 4.4 – Ex Nihilo.

The logical ‘further exploration’ of the exercise seemed that to take the sense of building and shaping from nothing in a studio style environment could be progressed figuratively to the building and shaping from nothing of identity.

The history of photographic portraiture should be considered and there was a strong intention to stay away from telling a linear autobiographical story but an awareness that it is the whole of the past that makes today’s present.

(Handwritten notes / early idea forming: Assignment 4 Considerations, Decision Making, Planning

Research Links: Research – Symbolism and Portraiture   Research – Cindy Sherman


Image 1 (f2.8, 1/125, ISO 100)selfportrait1

Image 1 refers to the Film Noir genre of photography which takes its influence from Noir Films. It is perhaps a fitting place to start as my research focussed on Cindy Sherman whose project was of ‘Film Stills’ that weren’t actually film stills. It is the use of light in the photographs of this genre that can make them appear to have a potential for something macabre. I was particularly angry when I was shooting for this shot. [Further text added after formative feedback] The tendency of film noir to make misogynistic use of the lighting of females in a form that suggests vulnerability and the potential for exploitation and hunting is something that allows me to have a sense of exploitive predatory experience I have no tolerance for.


Image 2 (f5, 1/200, ISO 100)selfportrait2

Image 2 has the altered background, the obvious references to how a woman might feel viewed as a commodity only such as the wig, the nude coloured dress, the lack of a shoe. This was acutely stressful to shoot. Shadows were lightened on the creases of the dress but in general everything was made a bit grungier, a bit darker, so that the light shaped a feel that was of harm. [Further text added post formative feedback] This image moves on slightly in terms of my feelings of the ‘gaze’ from the first image that references film noir. Here we have a more contemporary version of the potential for exploitation or further exploitation that the collective gaze prevalent in society today asserts is acceptable within our society.


Image 3 (f8, 1/125, ISO 100)selfportrait3

Image 3 has a gentler feel than the previous images. The light is diffuse and broad. The clothing is conservative and simple with only two colours across the palette. My hair has been made long. As though I hadn’t cut it all off when I broke down when the blocked memories started to own me. [Further text added post formative feedback] This image is perhaps my countering of what I see as ‘damage’ by certain forms of exploitive viewing, not just of females but also of males. There could be an accusation of defensive staging and facial expression by a female who is not perhaps fully through what she needs to deal with in order to be more relaxed.


Image 4 (f5, 1/200, ISO 100)selfportrait4

Image 4 is slightly more ‘fake’ than the alternative select hat I rejected. I wanted this image; it has a place in the series because the smile is too unreal. There’s a small amount of damage to the top that is worn near the top of the sleeve of my right arm. I chose not to clone it. I’m not sure when the damage occurred though this is a garment I’ve owned for approximately 17 years, yet only rarely worn. I was wearing it on a night I went out and subsequently filed a police report in respect of. I could expand on my patchy witness statement now but I know it is as pointless as putting the lightly damaged garment in the bin. [Further text added post formative feedback] This photograph speaks of the regular attempts I made to try incredibly hard to get on with everyone. The smile is a little too unreal. It was only when I achieved a much greater connection with my past that I have been able to shake of some of the ‘over trying’ unreal type of state of being. Unfortunately this hasn’t always been liked by those around me. Though it could be said that this image is out of sequence I chose a non-linear narrative, if there is indeed a narrative.


Image 5 (f5, 1/200, ISO 100)selfportrait5

Image 5 is, at a literal level a depiction of me, the keeper of house rabbits as stated on my social media blurb. Yet whilst its apparently happy, brightly lit, with a white background – albeit it tinted in post production – it’s not all about happiness. I wanted to try to shoot a contemporary take on the Victorian style formal portraits that included pets. Whilst I might not look particularly serious in the image above I’m very serious about formal portraiture and it’s place within photographic practice. I’m also serious in respect of my keeping of house rabbits and shot this having experienced, with Bruce who’s in the picture, the loss of my giant rabbit earlier this year. The allusion to the 1970s with the choice of the denim off-the-shoulder top refers to many influences on my start in life. [Further text added post formative feedback] The image could be described as looking like something more in keeping with photography that might be used in advertising yet as already described the appearance belies my seriousness in respect of two occupations of a little of my time that have been loaded with significant meaning for me. My pursuit of learning how to photograph with a dslr and learning how to properly keep house rabbits has been amongst the pillars of my life during recent years. Most of the shots I took for this image to be captured were preparatory shots without my rabbit. The rabbit was only in 5 frames and then allowed to resume spending time with his companion. The speed-light was not firing towards his eyes and this was a planned choice.


Image 6 (f4, 1/30, ISO 200)selfportrait6

Image 6 is the ‘beauty’ shot. It was shot with a beauty dish and heavily retouched and post processed to create a notion of beauty against a background that is also very much changed and gives no sense of shadows or of difference across the breadth of it. It took me many hours to make me look like I look in this photograph. And if I post it on social media I may well be told it’s “beautiful” but the less likely commentary is that of whether I’m getting any better at lighting and retouching! [Further text added post formative feedback] I feel that this is not very much me in many senses. I don’t have the time to manage this amount of make-up and I am often quite covered when I go out of my home. This photograph refers to the images we see through various media ‘helping’ us to have an image of what beauty is defined by what we see. I used to think that these sorts of images could contribute towards body dysmorphic type diagnoses including eating disorders. I now feel very strongly that this often repeated message that the defining  of beauty as a retouched idealistic and unreachable target is not much to do with many of these disorders but that it is much more likely that it is what I have attempted to describe in images 1 and 2 in terms of exploitation and threat. Exploitation and threat are that that is causative rather than idealistic beauty which is but the rug that the gaze and the acts that objectify some males and females is swept under as sufferers cling to something less horrifying.

Contact sheets are below the assignment notes and references.


Assignment Notes 

The assignment required that one of the coursework tasks listed be expanded upon in order to produce a series of 6 to 10 images that Explored the Languages of Light, as it might be shown in images which would work naturally as a series with a linking theme be that of subject or a particular period of time. The chosen coursework task was exercise 4.4, Ex Nihilo and the linking theme was to take the starting point of ‘from nothing’ to the point of identity, whilst still using the language of light.

Research was completed, that included considerations of the history of portraiture as an art form and as part of photographic practice, the concept of self-portraiture and the possibilities of communicating that which is more personal through semiotics. Though there were considerations to be found as to the difficulty of communicating emotions which were described by Paul Hill as “ephemeral” (P91, (1982), Approaching Photography) and therefore difficult to describe through photographic practice. Further considerations were made as it seemed that to describe a sense of identity is more than to describe emotions. That some visual language of semiotics are more ‘universal’ than others was also considered.

Cindy Sherman’s work was reviewed as her Untitled Film Stills are some of the most known images of self-portraiture though they weren’t a direct exploration of Sherman.

The self-portraits were shot with a clear intention though have evolved during the time of shooting and during the period of retouching and finishing.  The act of creating them has caused an emotional process of recall that went beyond that which the images had been built upon and forced an outward view as to the women’s place in society over recent years across different social groups and the gaze as it is understood to be across contemporary western culture and beyond and the destructive powers it may hold. Having seen some post photography that states a challenge to the gaze yet still does so with nudity, I question whether there will ever be a real challenge and the now building female gaze only further validates my sense that there will never be any true change.

The risk of exploring identity and doing so through self-portraiture was a stressor yet it may have been useful to have felt stuck at times with what I was undertaking. There was some concern as to whether I could carry this forward and bring some sense of completion or at least part completion – as this is an idea that could be returned to repeatedly – for the purposes of the assignment and a sense of having made a proper psychological investigation of what identity is and a visual attempt at communication.

Research as to the concept of identity was made. It seems a difficult subject to clearly describe whether in words or photographs. What is it that makes me, me? From nothing. My sense is that it is not just a set of values and interests and experiences – that understates identity. Identity is forged, in the literal sense of the term forged. What I am has been composed of my most heinous experiences. And my comprehension of them. And yet it is those who have sought to give me some of worst memories who have felt it appropriate to accuse me of having a Cinderella Complex which seems comparable to the realities of living with the gaze.

I never meant to refer to my anger at the gaze as much as I have in the self-portraits and I certainly never meant my self portrait with only one shoe to refer to a psychological theory that has been used as an insult to many more than me. Yet I’m disclosing at a rate that appears to ahead of my intention.

It is with a certain sadness though that I close my series with the ‘beauty’ shot knowing that whilst my old desire to convey nothing resulted in some serious difficulties for me, I have always been conveying something, consciously or as it was mostly unconsciously, and that which I have conveyed has always been of me and my place and lack of place in society which is identity as it is for all of us.

Word Count (702 )


Hill, P, Approaching Photography 1982 Focal Press, London and Boston



Contact Sheets

Image 1 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait1-p1


Image 2 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait2-p1


Image 3 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait3-p1



Image 4 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait4-p1


Image 5 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait5-p1


Image 6 – contact sheetcontactsheet-selfportrait6-p1