Self portraiture
January 18, 2024

I’ve been thinking a lot about self portraits over the last few months — specifically how we define them, and what it means to create a self portrait.

Conventionally, self-portraits are considered a means of representing oneself, giving outsiders a glimpse into the artist's self-perception. I’m used to thinking of self portraits as something reserved for art forms like photography, painting, or drawing, but have more recently taken to the idea of self portraiture as a more ephemeral and personal act.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been “creating” self portraits for a few months now every time I look in the mirror and consciously study my face and my beard. I’m not used to having such a big beard, as I normally keep it short, but from the first day of October 2023 until the day I begin to write this, in mid December of the same year, I’ve let it grow, and it’s gotten quite long and thick. It feels like I’m in a weird liminal space visual identity wise: I don’t recognize myself with the beard, but don’t think I’d recognize myself without it.

In a way, I’m scared to shave it off because I don’t know what I would look like underneath the facial hair. So every day, I look in the mirror and take a mental self portrait of my bearded face, a fleeting photo captured only by my eyes. It sounds silly, to take a self portrait with your eyes, but in practice, how is it any different than taking a “real” self portrait with a camera, and then immediately deleting the image, never to be seen again? If the intent to create a self portrait is there, I don’t think eyeballs make for any less legitimate a medium. Is the fact that the photo once existed as an artifact simply with the potential to be more permanent than a reflection in the mirror really enough of a difference to disqualify the self-study of my beard from self portraiture?

My plan is to go to Brussels, then to Prague, for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I was trimming the sides of my beard beforehand, so it would stay long but not be so unruly and puffy on my cheeks, when my razor broke. The guard snapped, and in doing so my hand moved my razor, with no guard, directly onto my cheek, shearing a huge chunk of facial hair, before the electric razor itself shutdown and refused to do anything beyond emit a low hum. With no razor and a huge chunk of hair missing from my beard, my only real option was to take one of my few remaining blades that I usually used for cleaning up hair on my neck and to shave down to a baby face. Which is exactly what I did.

Even before I grew my beard long I had stubble, probably for the two or so years leading into the October I started letting it grow. To see the skin on the lower half of my face was a borderline dissociative experience. At first I genuinely thought my face was lopsided. I think I stared at myself for at least fifteen minutes in the mirror, until my face no longer felt like someone else’s.

It was by far the most alien self portrait I’ve ever created of myself with my own two eyes, despite the fact I should have been accustomed to seeing myself with no beard given the first two decades of my life being spent mostly beardless.

If a self portrait is meant to provide a window into how the artist perceives themselves, I do wonder if there’s any significance to the fact that I took the most impactful self portraits when I was the most unable to recognize myself. It’s been about a month now, since I shaved my beard off entirely, and I have yet to get a new electric razor, meaning that slowly but surely, my beard is growing back.

This time however, I am looking less, taking less self portraits, because this time I can recognize me — it feels like I’ve been here before.