Photography is not about re-creating the world exactly as it is. Rather, it’s about what happens when our vision and the manner in which our cameras manipulate light combine to create new worlds. So when we turn our cameras on ourselves, who shows up in the image? Me, I call the person in my self-portraits the fourth person.
The fourth person
I have the idea of the fourth person from a quote attributed to Man Ray in the book Man Ray fotografie/photographs 1925-1955:
Like other painters I’ve made self-portraits, even photographic ones, but I’ve always been tempted to deform or alter the image in such a way as to erase any intention of seeking a resemblance. You might say – in the fourth person.
As a linguist and grammarian by training, I was intrigued by this statement. The languages we’re the most familiar with in the Western world – English, French, German and so on – have grammatical systems with three persons. The first person is I, the person who is speaking. The second person is you, the person I am speaking to. The third person is he or she, the person you and I are speaking about.
No, the woman in my self-portraits is someone and something else, a fourth person, me but also a not-me that I use to express my thoughts and emotions in such a way that they speak to the viewer while – hopefully – leaving room for the viewer’s own thoughts and interpretation.
The importance of inspiraton
One of the things I have always loved about the Mortal Muses is that the site gets me out there to shoot and try new things. This is equally true now that I am a contributor here myself. When I started taking and editing self-portraits like the above with my phone, it was the result of reading this post by Urban Muser.
Urban Muser, as I’m sure you all know, is a gifted self-portrait artist, and I asked her to pick two of her favourite selfies and tell me about who the woman in her images is. This is what she answered:
I think that the woman in my self-portraits is a combination of both the first and the fourth person. Through the use of my trusty iPhone apps, I often render myself an unrecognizable fourth person in my selfies, so–as Man Ray described–I “deform or alter the image in such a way as to erase any intention of seeking a resemblance.” But often times the images are influenced heavily by the way I am feeling on a certain day or a moment or emotion that I want to capture and memorialize, so in that sense, the first person lingers just beneath the surface. In short, she is me, not me, the me I want to forget, and sometimes the me I want to be.
Urban Muser hits upon something here that I think is crucial – the many different faces of self we all have.
Coming back to Man Ray
Man Ray himself appears to have been a man of many faces. Take his name: He was born Emmanuel Radnitsky, but when his family changed their surname to Ray, supposedly to escape the growing anti-Semitism in the early 20th century, he took the name Man Ray. What did it mean to him to change his name? Probably quite a lot; it’s easy to forget how important our everyday names are to our identity. Personally, I introduce myself with the English pronunciation of my name when I speak English – in Norwegian the j- in my name is pronounced like the y- in yes – because I become a slightly different person when I speak a different language, and I like to have that reflected in my name.
What is more, not only did Man Ray move several times between New York and Paris – and there is no doubt that travel, not to mention relocation, changes you forever – but he was also married twice. His second wife, Juliet, was a dancer and a model, and their marriage lasted from 1946 until he passed away in 1976. In 1955 he completed a collection of photographs, shot over a ten-year period, called The Fifty Faces of Juliet, containing portraits of his wife. The portraits were mostly of her face, since Man Ray, according to the same book quoted above, believed that the human face has a “natural disposition for expressing the mysterious” (my emphasis).
And this brings us neatly back to the fourth person. The fourth person comes into being at the intersection between the photographer’s camera and her vision of herself. This is a mysterious process, and when the resulting image has a touch of this mystery, the image is open for interpretation and thus more likely to trigger interest and new thoughts with the viewer.
I know that there are many of you in our wonderful community who shoot self-portraits. Tell me about them! Who is the person who appears in your selfies?
All the best from Jenny.