self-portrait in the wilderness

Posted by on December 31, 2007

Taking a self-portrait is a popular thing to do, and lots of my friends have done it with great success, but whenever I try to do the same, I only achieve a worried-looking aspect of myself. Maybe I’m worried about how the portrait will turn out, since it is difficult to get a flattering shot when all you have is the strength and length of one arm to work with. Certainly part of the problem is that I am incapable of launching a cornball smile at a camera held by my own hand, so I cynically resort to a frown instead.

We are in Tennessee, and while Esme napped under the watch of her grandparents yesterday, I took a drive out into the country by myself with my camera, just looking. It was foggy and mild, grey and green, a good day for the still unfrozen winter fields of the south, lined by still-green trees and the painted broadsides of weathered barns, whether wood or metal. I directed my car up a narrow gravel driveway into a farm property that was for sale. Shrubs brushed up against the underside of my car and the tires spun in the soft ground just a bit. The farm was quiet, abandoned, with old machinery and grass tufts. It felt clean with rain-soaked clay, leaning fences. Many busy robins populated the eaves and empty stables. I was wearing a grey sweater; my complexion seemed to be having calm, even sort of day.

Perhaps motivated by an unconscious desire to be one of those natural-looking women of the celtic variety who you might see modeling fair isle sweaters in knitting books, the idea to make my own portrait came to me while circling the property. I tried multiple times, standing in front of old fences and what not, but reflexively hit the delete button upon viewing each one. The results I was getting were not suitable for personal consumption, much less fit to fling into the public domain, where all criteria for beauty and self-flattery become even more confounded.

Given the discouraging odds, I decided that either the self-portraiture project should be abandoned, or else, perhaps, I should relax my criteria and settle for the odd and ugly views of myself, along with the ocassional view that meets my approval. It occured to me that the portraits I was deleting may be the very views of myself that others see most often. The way I would like to portray myself is not be the way I actually look to others. When other people look at me, I have no idea what they see, and to no extent can I control this. But even though I can somewhat accept this state of affairs, I cannot imagine abandoning all of the many, many ways that I try to control the image of myself I present, even though I know that if I could only get free from that concern, then perhaps I could pour my energies into becoming holy, or an artist, or both. It will never happen, except perhaps via the senility of old age.

Perhaps then I’ll begin my career as a holy fool. I’ll finally let my hair do the large, wild, and curly things that it has always wanted to do, and my head will become a symbol of spiritual and artistic freedom par excellence. I will wear animal skin and eat locusts and wild honey; I will become a voice crying in the wildernness.

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  1. Manuela
    December 31, 2007

    Dear Julia,

    you look gorgeous in the photo and and the expression is actually great. I think smiling self portraits can be boring sometimes. The photo looks very real and natural, and that is who you are. And what I see when I look at you is beauty (from whatever perspective) on the outside and inside.

    P.S.: I hope you are having a wonderful time in Tennessee.Brad and I look forward to your return.

  2. anna j
    January 2, 2008

    Stunning, my dear . . . and you’re even more stunning in person, I can now happily affirm, being graced by your presence this week 🙂

  3. Alishia
    January 2, 2008

    Not worried, contemplative, like your posts. My favorite quote:
    “Perhaps motivated by an unconscious desire to be one of those natural-looking women of the celtic variety who you might see modeling fair isle sweaters in knitting books…” Makes me think of the J. Peterman catalog. Great descriptions for selling clothing.

  4. Julia
    January 2, 2008

    Y’all are sweet. I do like myself most through the eyes of my overly-generous and loving friends.

    I thought that the J. Peterman catalog was just a crazy fictional Seinfeld thing…can’t believe it’s for real.

  5. Molly Sabourin
    January 2, 2008

    That is indeed a super cool picture, Julia. I have enjoyed broadening my appreciation for photography through examples of your work and written reflections. Thanks for sharing them both!

  6. Jenny
    January 4, 2008


    I’m so glad to be able to glimpse beautiful, honest you and your world through this blog.

    Wish I could have been with you on the photo shoot. That sounds like such a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

  7. Anonymous
    January 13, 2008

    please, please, please let your hair do the wild and crazy things it has always wanted to do. even for a day. my hair wishes it had all that life, vigor, drama, personality. to my tame mane, a feral day is an exotic adventure.

    be who you are, hair and all. milk and honey are waiting.

    –beth (this elitist blog site won’t let me comment as myself without subscription)