The I Is Not an Object

A news anchor and a late-night talk show host arrived for a joint interview with a New York Times reporter, each accompanied by publicists who insisted their clients only be photographed from their “good” side. The Times reporter found this amusing, but my sympathies lay with the photographer who had to cater to show business egos. Fortunately for the photographer, his subjects wanted to be shot from opposite sides, which enabled him to position them facing each other in the same frame.

This episode helps explain why, as a photographer, I generally prefer landscapes. Rocks and trees do not care which angle you shoot from. There is no vanity, no pasted-on grin or seizing up altogether when a camera is pointed in their direction. Even when the subject is myself, as it was on a recent project, I still find a certain amount of self-regard creeping in. I am at least 30 years and 30 pounds beyond my physical prime, so there are no illusions about producing glamour shots. In this case, I was mostly using myself as a prop, so it really didn’t matter what I looked like. Yet I still tried to make myself look good – or at least better than I otherwise might.

We are all practiced in putting on our best “camera face” whenever someone wants to take a picture. I noticed my granddaughter was already proficient at this before the age of two. I much prefer to photograph people when they are just being themselves, which is usually when they are not aware I am taking pictures. This obviously doesn’t work when I am photographing myself. The paradox is that you can only truly be yourself when you are not self-conscious.

“The I is not an object,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote. As it happens, Wittgenstein was a photography buff, although I don’t think that really figured in his ruminations on the self. For a photographer, self-portraits present some unique technical hurdles, since you can’t actually see what you shooting. You can photograph your image in a mirror, which will give you the mirror-reverse of how you look to everyone else. Or you can mount your camera on a tripod, and set the timer and automatic focus. Either way, you are reminded that the face that is most familiar to you is the one you can never see directly.

Philosophers are faced with a similar problem in trying to understand the self. Sometimes we think of the self as the subject and sometimes as the object of our awareness, which the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.” It puts us in the awkward position of a photographer trying to peer at himself in the viewfinder of his camera. Or as Wittgenstein put it, “I objectively confront every object. But not the I.”

I tried to illustrate this conundrum with a self-portrait of me holding a large oval mirror in which you could see a reflection of me crouched beside a camera on a tripod photographing me holding the mirror. In reality, of course, there were two images of myself layered into a single photograph using Photoshop and various add-ons. In reality, neither image depicted the self as subject, the “I” that observes everything but leaves no trace of itself in the world as the object of its own awareness.

With Photoshop, I can place myself on both sides of the camera, but in reality there can’t be two of us – so how do I resolve Schopenhauer’s “monstrous contradiction”? The subjective self – the one that peers through the viewfinder of the camera – is essentially invisible. As the designated photographer at many family events, I am apparently never present at the festivities because I am never in any of my own pictures. My other self – the one that is the object of my awareness – is anything but invisible. It has its strengths and weaknesses, its likes and dislikes, a sense of humor, a personality with some quirks thrown in. I might even be tempted to say it is the ground of my being--except that it is not. I am grounded in my awareness of the world, which is my subjective self. So if I must choose between two selves, that is the real me. The self that is the object of my awareness may be anything but invisible but it is still an illusion.

Philip Galanes, “Fast Thoughts, Slow Jams,” New York Times, August 22, 2014

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