Self-Portrait @ 48

Ellen Carey

Ellen Carey, Self-Portrait @ 48

Ellen Carey, Self-Portrait @ 48


Self-Portrait @ 48 contains 48 “self-portraits” using black and white film with the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera, discarding the positives and keeping only the negatives, referencing the monumental Mourning Wall. The negatives of this film have a thick texture and a silvery, chalky stone-like appearance — elemental qualities which resonate with the symbolism of publicly displaying the ‘negative’. Each image is photographed in silhouette echoing the practice of Victorian cut-out paper negatives — an art form used to keep images of loved ones before photography was invented. Hung from the floor in five rows representing a decade each, the poses of these self-portraits are of my head and shoulders only. The physical patina of the print’s surface, the negative, is reminiscent of stone carvings, making the portraits almost totemic. The silvery quality of the images echoes the natural hair changes of ‘going gray’ and simultaneously reminding us that silver can express beauty and richness.
These self-portraits take their conceptual cue from a clock, it’s “face”: Front is twelve o’clock noon or midnight; my right profile is three o’clock; the back of my head and shoulders is six o’clock; and my left profile is nine o’clock, telling time by moving forward and coming full circle. The metaphor of time as in a clock ticking is an apt one for this project on aging. Furthermore, photography and time have always been interwoven, both conceptually and physically. It is also the shutter speed that allows light in for small amounts of time that makes a picture. And so, in Self-Portrait @ 48 the physical changes of aging are metaphorical and tied to the process of photography.

 The poses of the front/back or six/twelve o’clock are less specific than the right/left profiles or three/nine o’clock. In the former the gestalt of the negative silhouette reads as a human head whose facial characteristics are suggested by subtle pin points for eyes on the front or the smooth cap of hair at the back. The gender of the subject, my self, is also ambiguous since the photographic negative print disguises any clues in a solid, chalky white ground as in marble statues.

The right/left profiles or three/nine o’clock are the opposite. Like footprints in the sand the profiles serve as a photographic indexical to my physiognomy. These images with their stark outlines allow for delicate rendering — even the eyelashes are distinct. The profiles are taken with a ponytail to signal the feminine, while acknowledging the grown woman who once was a little girl. The large-format Polaroid 20 x 24 negative prints have a one-to-one ratio to life size scale, and like daguerreotypes, they have crisp details.

The 48 self-portraits consist of twelve sets of nearly identical poses at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock and hung in five rows representing the five decades of my life. However, in the twenty-sixth year or the third row there is one black negative and another in the 43rd year or row five — instead of self-portraits, blanks. These empty rectangles represent two separate years of traumatic events marked by loss: the death of my father in 1979 when I was 26, followed by my mother and middle brother when I was 43 years old. The negative pictures without me in them symbolize the absence of my presence, and introduce that year as a mourning period and a significant loss, a part of one’s self.