December 07, 2011


John Dobson

They say that adversity is the mother of invention. That’s how I began taking self-portraits. I’ve been taking photos for a long time now, since my youth as a bleach-blond-with-dark-roots wannabe-punk graphic design student at art-college in England, back in the 1970s. I have a large body of personal photographic work to show for it. Some of it makes me cringe and some of it I’m quite proud of. 1977 was the year I saw the Sex Pistols play their first gig at Central School of Art and Design. It was also the year the Queen celebrated her silver jubilee so England was alive with street parties.

I absolutely loved living in London, being an art student and discovering photography back then. At college I was always heading up to the library just to be the first to borrow the latest chunky issue of French Vogue to check out the latest shots by two of my favourite photographers back then, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Funny how those copies of French Vogue were never quite as chunky when I returned them. I loved the buzz and energy of London back then, being a part of its art, music and fashion scene. Growing up in bland inner suburban Melbourne, I always dreamed of being an art student and living in swinging London. I got my wish. I’ll always have London...

John Dobson 1980 self-portrait

I recently put together a 30 year retrospective of what I considered to be the best of my work for a self-published photo book. I just did it for myself really, as a kind of consolidation. Looking at this body of work, shot over the various decades, despite the passing of time, styles, different cameras, formats and even improvements in my technical ability, I would say there still seems to be a kind of consistency to my work and uniqueness to my vision.

John Dobson whistler pastiche self-portrait

To me the face is everything. I love shooting people, but only people who love being shot. Someone famous, I think it was Joan Crawford, once said, “You can’t shoot a dead cat,” meaning you can’t take a good shot of an unwilling subject. Unless she had a gig hunting feral felines on the side, it was probably in reference to her working collaboration with some of the great Hollywood portrait photographers of the 1930s and 1940s. I have lots of shots of willing subjects, posed shots of friends or friends of friends, all who had something about them that interested me and who graciously consented to model for me. I’m not generally a shy person but it always seemed to take a lot of courage for me to ever ask anyone to model for me. I see people that I would love to photograph all the time. But the funny thing is, despite having what I think is a fairly outgoing personality, actually finding models has always been, for me, my biggest problem.

John Dobson devil self-portrait

The problem is, I’m at their mercy. I need them for my art, but they don’t need me. For some reason I’ve usually either been nervous about asking people, thinking they’d think I had some ulterior motive, or nervous that they would reject my request, leaving me feeling humiliated. And if I ever did ask someone, and they said no, I always took it personally, vowing never again to ask anyone or at least anyone remotely attractive, figuring they all had attitude problems anyway. And I wondered whether some attractive people thought they were specially blessed because of their looks and had some kind of superiority complex. Or maybe the problem was that I was never by nature a predatory type and that, to me “no” always meant “no” rather than “no for now but if you keep stroking my ego and asking me enough times I might eventually relent and say yes.”

John Dobson angel self-portrait

Sometimes I’d have an idea that I just wanted to get out of my head. And if I didn’t somehow embrace the moment and do it quickly, it felt like I was creatively constipated. I figured by the time I found a model willing to pose for me, the inspiration would be gone. The muse of creativity that was floating above me would just drift away. And I would be left creatively barren.

Then one day while holding my camera up to myself in a mirror I inadvertently discovered the self-timer and hit upon the idea of using myself as a model. All I needed was a tripod and my hands were free. It made perfect sense. And I somehow felt liberated by the idea. I was always available and I was a willing subject. And I was no longer at the mercy of anyone. Although I didn’t think I was ideal model material, I was well aware of my flaws but also my virtues. I knew I could create the illusion. That’s what I love about photography. On one level it’s all about showing the truth. Supposedly the camera never lies. But it’s also about how much of the truth you show and what you don’t show and the right kind of lighting, camera angle, choice of framing and lens and even how much or what is in focus. It’s all about a perceived point of view. It’s all about smoke and mirrors and creating an illusion of the truth. Photography is both objective and subjective.

John Dobson top hat and tails self-portrait

So I began taking self-portraits. Sometimes I wondered whether I was becoming too self-obsessed and whether my photography was beginning to revolve around just me and me alone. I wondered whether it was really all about vanity and narcissism. And I wondered whether I should just try to be more persistent with some of those recalcitrant models and force myself to ask other people to pose for me. But there was always that fear of rejection from the beautiful people hanging over my head.

It just seemed easier using myself. Well, easier because I was always available and I didn’t have to work around anyone else. But it was much more difficult because I was wearing two hats, being both the photographer and the model. I had to visualize my composition rather than view it through the lens. I also had to devise various techniques to achieve what would have been so much easier with another model. The best piece of equipment I think I ever bought was a long cable release, freeing me from having to set the time-release, click the shutter, then rush into the shot, trying to appear relaxed but usually ending up looking stiff and frozen. I had to develop my modelling skills and find poses and angles that I thought suited me best while still continuing to develop my photographic skills. I needed a much higher shooting ratio because self-portraiture involves a lot of trial and error, hit and miss, shooting and re-shooting. I decided it was a bit like the old “kissing a lot of frogs before you find your prince” analogy because I needed to shoot a lot of duds to find something that I thought worked. I also wondered what the hell the labs I’ve used over the years must have thought, what with so many shots of the same guy. I could almost feel them rolling their eyes whenever I would slink in to collect my proofs, desperately trying to look as invisible as possible.

John Dobson self-portrait ponytail

I decided not to let my embarrassment and any of this negativity restrict my creativity. And I kept reminding myself that I was following a well-worn path and how many other artists and photographers had often used themselves as models. Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh all worked obsessively on many self-portraits throughout their life. Photographer, Cindy Sherman has made a career out of photographing no one but herself. The irony is I don’t have many snap shots of myself. I hate candid snap shots of myself. I have no control. When someone points a camera at me I turn away or I freeze; I become a dead cat. The biggest irony is I’m an unwilling subject for anyone but myself. My self-portraits are how I would like to see myself, not how I really am. Maybe that really is vanity. I’m a Gemini. Geminis are supposed to have multiple personalities. And so I present some of the various personas of myself.

John Dobson self-portrait grant wood pastiche

John Dobson self-portrait magritte pastiche

John Dobson self-portrait

John Dobson self-portrait body shot

John Dobson self-portrait

John Dobson self-portrait body shot
John Dobson self-portrait

John Dobson self-portrait body shot

John Dobson self-portrait

John Dobson self-portrait body shot