Week 9: Self Portrait

Basic Black and White Photography with Matthew Swarts

Yasumasa Morimura.

Lee Friedlander.

Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selsnick.

Nikki S. Lee.

John Coplans.

Lucas Samaras.

Jen Davis.

Francesca Woodman.

Cindy Sherman.

Shen Wei.

Hannah Wilke.

Nan Goldin.

For Next Week:

Download and review the slides from this week’s lecture: arts1810-slides-self-portrait

Read: Exposing the Body, Baring the Soul, about Francesca Woodman

Watch and Read: about Nikki S. Lee 

Watch and Read: about Cindy Sherman.

Expose at least one roll of film with yourself as subject.  When making your exposures, use either the self-timer on your camera, your own extended hands and/or feet, a remote control, or a cable release.  Do not, in other words, have someone else photograph you.

Edit, make contact sheets, and print your 4-6 best images for critique in class next week!

Things to consider while making your work:

  1. We see and converse with ourselves every day as reflections, but how is the camera distinct from a mirror?  How does it see space differently and how can you coax it into seeing your own image in ways that are interesting, useful, and otherwise impossible?
  2. Photographic self-portraits often require a certain surrendering of control that can be analogous to working with the pinhole and other crude cameras.  What’s it like to give up looking in the camera again?  How can you use this “limitation” most advantageously?
  3. Somewhat conversely:  although you usually can’t see yourself at the moment of exposure,  making a self-portrait can also be a very precise and extremely controlled event.  Think of the concern for the sense of space and detail that the work of John Coplans and Cindy Sherman demonstrates.  Both artists use elaborate studio set-ups to create a space in which to move, gesture, and even perform for the camera.  Look around as you photograph: how can you use the space that surrounds you and the objects in that space to extend the visual and narrative elements of your images?
  4. Diane Arbus said that when she was photographing she wanted to find ways to get inside “the gap between pose and repose.”  She wanted to slip herself, in other words, underneath and inside the public masks of her subjects.  Arbus is often heralded as being an extraordinarily brave and cunning photographer, one who went to great lengths and often dangerous places to bring back her images.  One could argue, however, that perhaps the bravest and most challenging thing she could have done would have been to photograph herself.  (Some have said this might have saved her life.) Can you think of ways to be brave and cunning enough to unmask yourself?  Ways that might look deeply enough into the reality of your image to the point that your pictures could become, as Arbus was always seeking,  “things perfectly real and yet utterly fantastic.”
  5. Sometimes fiction is the higher truth.  Think of, among others, Yasumasa Morimura and Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick and the personas they inhabit to make work that is essentially playful and deeply imaginative self-portraiture.  Have you thought about how you might similarly explore such fictive realities as instructive, even therapeutic metaphors about your own imaginative life?

Bleaching Prints to Adjust Local and Overall Contrast

Sometimes a photograph that is printed slightly too dark and slightly too low in contrast can benefit from saturation in a simple chemical bleach bath that will either locally or overall (depending on the technique used for application) adjust density and contrast. Photographic chemical bleach needs to be prepared and handled very carefully, under proper darkroom ventilation and (usually) not under safelight), as it is composed of Sodium Thiusulfate (the base chemical in Fixer) and Potassium Ferricyanide (which has the potential to be a skin irritant). When mixing bleach wear rubber gloves and handle all chemicals with caution!

The recipe for creating a solution of bleach is very simple, and is as follows:

In approx.  1 liter of water at 68 degrees, mix:

1 PINCH (small capful) of POTASSIUM FERRICYANIDE (orange crystals)


For overall bleaching, simply submerge a we, completely fixed print in the bleach bath, agitate under strong room lighting while observing the action of the bleach, rinse carefully in a tray not associated with other photographs, re-fix, re-fixer remover, and wash.

For local contrast and density changes use a paintbrush, a sponge, or other application technique, where the chemical is applied to the wet emulsion of the photograph selectively.

Note that photographic bleach is largely driven by the proportion of Potassium Ferricyanide added to the Sodium Thiosulfate, and can be adjusted in strength by either adding water (to reduce the concentration) or adding Potassium Ferricyanide (to increase the strength). The action of the bleach will occur in the highlight areas of your print first and most rapidly, followed by the mid tones, and lastly, if at all, the shadows. Some photographers make final exhibition prints slightly too dark and slightly low in contrast specifically with the idea in mind that they will later be bleached under white lighting, where final contrast and density can be more precisely controlled than in the darkroom under safe lighting. Prints left too long in a bath of bleach will exhibit an orange stain from the Potassium Ferricyanide and will be permanently altered. Thus, it is important to use bleach sparingly and carefully, as its action is always permanent on your photograph.

It is very important to re-fix your photograph even after subtle and minimal bleaching. The fixer will clear the Potassium Ferricyanide from the highlights and remove any hint of an orange or yellow stain from the whites. 


* In the gallery above featuring the work of Emmet Gowin, note how each image has a unique color, even though every image is allegedly a ‘black and white’ silver gelatin photograph. This is the result of very carefully applied bleaching and toning, which affects each photograph’s range of emotive content and feeling. Gowin is one of the most revered master photographic printers working today. His extensive use of toning and bleaching, which is not really reproducible here but obvious in contact with his original prints, makes his work unique and important in the history of photography.

Toning Prints for Color, Tonal Separation, and Permanence

Toning a photograph in a specially prepared chemical bath can quite subtly or quite wildly affect the overall print color, contrast, density, and permanence of the toned print. Many photographers tone every print they create as a way of ensuring the permanence of their work, as many toners convert the silver in photographic emulsions to more stable chemical combinations that will outlast untoned prints. Warmtone papers (like Ilford Multigrade RC Warmtone) in particular exhibit their green-brown tonal color range because of the addition of chloride to the photographic emulsion, and this additional chemical responds strongly to toners designed specifically for photographic prints. Toners invariably, however, are toxic chemicals and require very safe handling and storage. It is therefore very important to always wear rubber gloves, eye protection, and to work in a properly ventilated area when using toners. Never eat or drink when handling these chemicals, and never smoke near them. Use common sense.

Selenium is a heavy metal that bonds to the silver in a photographic print, affecting the overall color, contrast, and density, while increasing permanence and resistance to additional chemical decay. Selenium toners are sold in concentrated, single solution form, and may be diluted with fixer remover to more subtly control their effect. Different dilutions produce different results on different manufacturer’s papers, so it is important to use test strips or test prints when determining the proper dilution and toning time when using selenium. Sometimes in certain dilutions, and under careful observation as the effect is time-dependent, warm tone papers can be split-toned using selenium, which results in a warming (or brownish/red toning) of the shadows and a cooling (or bluish-gray toning) of the highlights. Photographers often work very carefully to achieve this color shift in their prints, as the effect when properly used can be quite startling and beautiful in ways unlike anything else obtainable photographically. Papers that are not warm-toned will exhibit an overall increase in contrast (as the dark tones will get darker and the highlights will be cleared), and a slight cooling of the color of the print.

To prepare a working solution of selenium toner: mix 1:9 (or for subtle results 1:20) in base of fixer remover (which is also mixed 1:9).

Submerge your print under strong ventilation and white lighting and observe as the action of the toner moves from the shadows to the highlights. The effect is subtle but noticeable, and selenium toned prints will stand out when dry and placed next to their untoned counterparts.

Plain fixer remover stops the action of the toner.  Use a bath next to your toning tray to carefully gauge how the toner is acting.

The selenium toner can be stored and reused. When exhausted it will simply have no effect on a print. Discard in marked chemical waste barrels.

Sepia Toner is a sulfide based, bleach and redevelopment toner, and requires two baths of solution in oder to complete its effect. As the name sounds, the first bath, which contains Ferricyanide, bleaches away contrast and tonality from your print while the second redevelops it with a warmer, brownish color and reduced density. Most sepia formulations are marked part A (for the Ferricyanide based bleaching solution) and part B (for the sulphide based redevelopment bath). It is of the utmost importance to work with this toner under proper ventilation, as the sulphide bath (Part B) has a very nasty, rotten egg-like smell that can be noxious.

Mix part A and B according to their packaging directions in separate graduates.  Separate with a tray of running water to rinse away the bleach.  The chemicals contaminate each other, so rinse carefully.  To tone, submerge your print in the bleach bath (part A) and then rinse completely. Then submerge in the redevelopment bath (part B) until the desired tone is achieved.  You may repeat to deepen to the tonality.

Note: a print toned first with Sepia Toner may be subsequently toned in Selenium to separate values and add permanence and subtle color changes, but not vice versa.

For a more technical discussion of toners and their possibilities, please consult this Ilford Tipsheet for Toning Black and White Photographs

Artist Spotlight: Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman.

Watch Transformation on PBS. See more from ART:21.