I’ve been doing test runs with different personas over the last 48-years, looking for aspects of identity I might use. I’ve built internal stories and altered my appearance to help me adapt to new places and people. Despite all the changing around, though, I’ve never wondered WHO I am. Every one of the personas, even those appearing only in a photograph, has been an expression of me. As the late Oliver Sachs said, “We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities.”
Fortunately, through art and photography, I’ve been gifted with many ways to act out different ways of looking and being. But all of them are me.
In the beginning, around age 18, when I moved to New York for college, I was very shy and thought I needed a more confident, “better” personality to cope with the metropolis and film school. I admired David Bowie for his outrageous stage characters. How would it feel to be androgynous and experimental like him? (To look more like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, I even shaved off my eyebrows. Big mistake.)
“As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage, and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself.” – David Bowie
How about the opposite, adopting the confident, sexy persona of Jane Fonda in Klute? Jane allowed me to get a job with Playboy, and to prowl around at night with utter cool in Max’s Kansas City (where David Bowie would sometimes appear).
Those forays–“full-body + persona” transformations would last months, even a year. I judged how the persona “felt” more by the reaction I got from my audience, and secondarily by how jazzed I was, how pleased I felt after interacting with people.
“I re-invented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally
an overweight Korean woman.” – David Bowie
In the middle period, I turned more to self-contemplation. I started using photography to try out different “me”s, and to give myself some perspective on who I was. I kept looking at my images, trying to see if I could recognize anything in the faces of the portraits I took of myself. I never thought of the self-portraits as photos of me, but of personas, or aspects of characters I might want to adopt.
“Everyone thinks these are self-portraits but they aren’t meant to be.
I just use myself as a model because I know I can push myself to extremes,
make each shot as ugly or goody or silly as possible.” –Cindy Sherman
I wasn’t aware of Cindy Sherman’s work when I was first staging, dressing, and photographing my characters. But we did similar things with our portraits–carefully selecting make-up, wigs, clothes, and the setting for the photos. Both of us were working alone (nobody else framing the shot or seeing the immediate result so we could adjust lighting, etc.). I’m not sure how Sherman worked, but I would use a tape measure to measure the distance from where I expected to be, to the camera lens so that the focus would be correct. I’d light scenes using a beach ball as the subject–or just use natural light. Finally, I’d set the timed shutter release and rush to get into my pose. In this process where I couldn’t see what the camera would capture, much of the success of a photo was surrendered to the energy of the moment.
Of course, I did finally see Cindy Sherman’s work and know that, compared to her photos, mine were trivial. She’s a magical shape-shifter, a real artist. Her characters often look nothing like her, and I know we were not looking for the same thing in our photographs. I was looking for recognition of some part of a persona. I’m not sure what drove her explorations, but I’d love to ask her.
In 2013, took a sabbatical from the workplace to spend time with my aging parents. Over these past 5 years or so, the time coinciding with my retreat from an audience, I’ve stayed in one persona. The time away from the mirror of others’ reactions has allowed me to think about and appreciate some of the most notable of my experiments with personas, and what those personas brought me: confidence for a shy person; style for an unformed teen; courage for a somewhat fearful person.
“We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity,
through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.” ― Charles Taylor
I’m not, however staid I seem, totally done with using photographs to see different facets of myself. The iPhone has become my most-used camera, and my discovery of filters has helped me to create personas by “painting” them onto self-portraits, rather than creating them in the real world.
While it’s easier to create these images than having to dress up and stage things, they are not as satisfying to me. They feel–and are–more superficial. But satisfying in that I am often pleased with the look of them. As art.
At this juncture of my life, I don’t feel the urge to turn the mirror this way and that, trying to recognize myself. I have lost the constant craving to experiment with personas. Maybe it’s just for now. We’ll see…
“We’re all products of what we want to project in the world. Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t,
on preparing themselves for the world out there, I think that ultimately they have their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present
a face to the world.” – Cindy Sherman