Editor’s Note: With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be fitting to revisit this 2015 guest post from Mark Rodriguez!
Go Shoot Yourself
Hello, My name is Mark Rodriguez–though some folks on the interwebz refer to me as Godriguez–and I am a self-portrait/conceptual artist from Tampa, Florida. When many people think of self-portraiture the first thing that will usually come to mind is that they are just selfies, and it is a form of narcissism that should be eradicated from the earth. They hear “selfie” and think of dirty bathroom shots with duck lips and shot from a high angle. But a well-crafted self-portrait can in fact be a form of therapy, as has been in my case, and can help tell stories that might only be important to the artist themselves.
Let me step back and give you a bit of history as to how I began shooting self-portraits in the first place.
Back sometime in 2011 I joined what was then a new social media platform called Google+ that was still in its beta phases. It was during this time that I was still searching for my own style in photography in general and G+ was a great vehicle for this with many different themed days that I could explore different types of photography and post them along with likeminded groups of people and get genuine feedback from a really supportive community of artists. During this time a new theme was started by Jeff Smith and Levi Moore called the Selfie Sunday Project where every other Sunday you would post a self-portrait. Sometimes there would be a theme for the week, sometimes not. But always there was an enthusiastic group of photographers that posted and I could not wait to see what they would come up with each week. It was at this time that I finally dipped my toe in and gave it a shot.
I will have to say that at this time I didn’t know anything about self-portraiture and had the misconception that it was some narcissistic thing. So I went about it cautiously and timidly, but soon found a release that I had not known before in doing them and quickly became a regular each time the theme rolled around. To me it was a great exercise in discipline in choreographing the setup, lighting, costume, and at the same time being an actor/model and somehow pulling it all off in a cohesive final shot. It was at this time I also found it to be extremely therapeutic as well.
It was around this same time of year in late October, 2011 that I found out just how cathartic self-portraiture could truly be. I was planning my selfy for the upcoming theme that week, which was to be a Halloween themed shot. I was going to be a swanky devil with a martini glass and looking quite smug. Unfortunately for me something tragic happened in my life the day before I was to do the shot. My mother passed away from complications from a stroke she had suffered earlier that same week. Now, many people might shut down and withdraw from the world when something like this happens–but much in the same way when my father passed away and I threw myself into my artwork in design school at the time–I threw myself into the shot I had planned but modified it into a fitting memorial to both my mother and father
Instead of a swanky, smug devil, I portrayed myself as a sad devil in a state of remorse holding a portrait of my parents. Both of my parents were huge in my life and they were the most giving, caring people I have ever met. So my interpretation of the shot was that the devil was depressed because these were two loving souls he would never have. To reinforce the symbolism of the shot I am wearing what was once my father’s red sport coat and tie, holding the portrait and frame my mother gave me when my father passed away and I am sitting in a chair that came from the house where I grew up. I pulled from the strength of my parents to make this shot because they always somehow found a way to see a positive in every situation and make the best of it. They always supported my art, and I felt by honoring them with a portrait that celebrated that spirit was the most fitting tribute I could ever accomplish. Each year around this time I create a new portrait sitting in the chair, holding the same frame and photo of them and I will continue to do so for as long as I am able. Self-portraiture as therapy, I highly recommend it.
I am actually a very shy and somewhat reclusive person, so the thing I truly love about self-portraiture is it can give you an outlet to be many of the things that you might not be. You can be a saint or a sinner, a joker or a gentleman, a loser or a legend and all in the safe confines of an image. I am extremely eclectic in my tastes and self-portraiture also lends to that as well. Having the ability to explore many different styles and themes yet still have a cohesive feel about them is a major draw. The thing about my work is it is created for myself first and everyone else second, and that is a key aspect to self-portraiture. For me as it is a very personal experience.
When I create my art, the first and foremost person I have to impress is myself. If I cannot impress myself, how can I possibly think anyone else would like it? I am my own worst critic, and in that am very critical with what I share when it comes to my work. If an image does not fit my own perceived standards of what is a quality finished piece then it will never see the light of day to anyone else. My self-portraiture more often than not tells a story, and if that story isn’t ready to be read then I continue to work on it till it does, or it goes into the garbage bin and I start over once again. I feel too often people worry too much about how others will like their work instead of staying true to themselves. You should always ask yourself this simple question when creating art: “Would I hang this on my wall?” If the answer is yes, then proceed. If not, move on to something different.
Story is paramount in much of my work, and is most evident in another Google+ themed event I participate in called the Chrysta Rae photography scavenger hunt. In this event you are given a list of 10 words and it is up to you to interpret each word in a photograph anyway you feel fit. It can be literal or abstract and I always like to push the meaning of the words each round. The community involved with this event is one of the most encouraging and supportive group of people I have ever met and truly an anomaly as far as any organized groups on any social media platform is concerned. It is yet another way that I have been able to establish my style via my self-portraiture in a very nurturing environment with no egos or trolls of any kind and if they do pop up they are run out of town quicker than you can blink an eye. It is in this event that I have again used self-portraits to tell stories and it really pushes you creatively in how you go about creating it.
An example of pushing the meaning of the words I often refer to was in one of the hunts when we were given the word “feather.” While quickly images come to mind of birds, a bird wing, a drop of water on a feather, or just a feather by itself, I pushed the word via some mind mapping until I came up with an image referring back to colonial times and the act of tarring and feathering people around the time of the Boston tea party. For that shot I stood half naked in my garage, pouring dark Karo syrup all over me and then pulling the feathers from a pillow and sticking them into the syrup. The problem was it was a hot summer night and I began to sweat which caused the feathers to begin to slide which made me have to add more syrup and more feathers over and over again. It was one of the most disgusting sensations I have ever felt in my life but you know what? It was totally worth it to get the shot across in my head and tell the story I wanted to tell that maybe this pour soul was totally upset that he got tarred and feathered but at least he still got his cup of tea. I will go to very extreme measures to get the shot in my head and have done everything from covering myself in latex paint, jumping backwards off a ladder onto mattresses on the ground, to making myself physically sick from chain smoking a cigar to get the right amount of smoke in the photo…whatever it takes to get the shot, whatever it takes to tell the story.
While still on the subject of the hunt, it was from it that I created a self-portrait that would go on to win the Best in show Guru Award at this past year’s Photoshopworld. The word for that shot was “happy” and again rather than showing a smiling baby, a smiling face or something of that sort, I thought to give it a twist and show something sinister lurking behind that smile. Again story and sometimes hidden elements are key to much of my work as is evident in this one. The choice of t-shirt in this shot reinforces the story for it is the classic “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” done by the amazing artist Carolyn Curtis, however, if you look closely my forearm is covering the “see no evil” face of the trio. I love subtle symbolism and try to weave it in there when I can and it is another level of storytelling that might not always be apparent to the viewer, yet it is there if they look deep enough. I don’t feel you should try to over explain–or explain at all–your work as it should be up to the viewer to interpret themselves and I personally want everyone to get their own emotion or feeling when they view my work. It should be as personal an experience for them viewing it as it was for you to create it.
I hope this gives you a little glimpse into my world and the world of self-portraiture and maybe shows it in a different light. While there is plenty of badly shot, self-absorbed, narcissistic-type, “selfies” out there, there is a whole other world of self-portraiture that is therapeutic, creative and can be an avenue of imagination that you can explore that is both personal and enlightening. I want to thank Scott Kelby and everyone at KelbyOne for giving me the opportunity to share my story and insights with you and I hope was able to convey just how personal self-portraiture is to me and could be for you…now go shoot yourself…metaphorically of course.
Mark Rodriguez is a Tampa, Florida based artist. Check out his inspirational interview on KelbyOne. You can keep up with him on Instagram and X (Twitter), as well as see some of his behind the scenes videos on YouTube. In addition to photography, He also creates animations and does voice work for the non-profit learning series WhyU.org.