The trip to Moscow that happened at the end of March (Diary #3) was originally meant to happen at the end of January, The last time I was in Moscow in January (many years ago) the outside temperature was -25 most of the time; whenever you stepped outside you could take a deep breath in through your nose and pinch your nostrils so you could hear your frozen nose-hair crackle. So this time, to protect my face a bit, I decided to grow a beard. I stopped shaving around the fourth of January (and of course didn’t record the exact date in my lovely, new, red leuchturm diary). My face got stubbly and then, one day when I looked in the mirror, I had a beard.
And then the trip got postponed.
Because of this, when my Russian Federation visa expired a month or so later and I had to get a new one. Russian visas include a photograph these days, and I realised that my spare photos from last time showed a clean-shaven me. Back in January I’d decided to keep the beard anyway for a bit, so I got new passport photographs taken and offered the visa people a choice when I went in to their office at Gee Street.
They went with bearded me and, since it can still be a bit chilly in Russia in March – even late March or early April – bearded me went to Moscow. Once the trip was over, though, there beard would go. As the weather got warmer it would get less comfortable having my face covered with hair.
My current passport already includes three versions of me: the passport photograph (no glasses), the visa picture that expired at the end of January (glasses, clean shaven); the second visa picture (beard; hair in need of a good trim). Any time that my passport would be needed there would be a fourth me present: the one the passport control officer would look up at as he stood, waiting to be let through. The officer might ask me to take off my glasses or my hat. I would try not to smile.
By the time I made the second entry allowed by the March Visa (Diary 5), I no longer would have a beard. All the pictures in my passport would look like me. Three supposedly indexical traces of “Simon Maxton Chirgwin” would in some way differ from the person standing in front of them. Why not produce some more? Why not create a typography of some of the possible ways I might look?
Other related themes that floated to the surface of my examination of my attempts to keep a diary and could be incorporated into this were:
- I often feel I cut a somewhat ludicrous figure as I transition from one role to another (and will put a fair bit of effort into keeping people who know me in one role separate from those who know me from another); “ludicrous”, rather than being simply pejorative, shares with “ludic” the Latin starting point of the latin verb “ludo, ludere” (to play – and also to mimic, mock; to deceive) which in turn is the name of a boardgame. I haven’t played ludo for years, but it could form the basis of another childhood memory.
- Playing games with my children – toys and puzzles that allow you to assemble multiple versions of something…
- Food & Cooking – while I’ve never actually cooked anything from it, I often take “The New First Slice Your Cookbook” by Arabella Boxer down off the cookery books shelf and flick through it. It’s described on Amazon as “…a collection of recipes providing “mix and match” menus for simple lunches or full-scale dinners. The pages are “sliced” horizontally into three sections which cover soups and starters, main dishes and puddings. The result is a variety of recipe cards which are interchangeable to provide a wide variety of menus, and all three courses can be seen at-a-glance” – just like those books for kids where you build a face from (usually four) strips.
There are a lot of stages between heavily bearded and clean shaven and it’s a lot of work removing a beard. On previous occasions when I’d removed a beard (I’ve probably had four or five beards over the course of my adult life) I’d moved through the various permutations of facial hair – the beard, the goatee, the moustache, the less ridiculous moustache, sideburns etc etc.
I had never documented the process though, coming up with a series of alternative me’s in photographic form. I realised that – as well as varying the way the bottom half of my face looked – I had enough pairs of glasses to come up with a number of different “eye-looks”. How about the rest of me? I have already mentioned that my preferred method keeping my head dry or warm is to wear a hat. I have plenty of hats. That was the top of my head sorted. I had more than enough jacket and shirt and t-shirt options to come up with a variety there too. An idea began to come together.
The end product I envisaged when I set out to take a series of portraits of myself was to have four decks of “cards”, with each deck offering four alternative versions of a part of my face. The idea of four options in each deck probably came from Alice’s wooden face toy, where each strip has four sides.
- Deck one would be my head above the eyebrows. I don’t have enough hair to come up with radically different hairstyles, but I do have a wide variety of hats. So – hair + three hats.
- Deck two would be of my eyes and the long part of my nose. I would wear my main pair of glasses, my spare glasses, my sunglasses and no glasses at all.
- Deck three would be my chin, in various stages of shavedness. There were easily more than four permutations here; i would choose four later.
- Deck four would be my neck and shoulders, with different outfits. For this I thought bare, t-shirt, casual shirt and suit and tie would give a range of readings as to my role in society.
Then, cutting each deck in turn and assembling them top to bottom into a portrait would produce one of two hundred and fifty-six (four to the power of four) different versions of my face…
I chose a day when everyone else would be out. I laid out my outfits and hats and looked out my spare glasses and my sunglasses. I put a new blade on my razor and new batteries in my speedlights.
In the attic i created my set. I used a simple neutral paper backdrop.The subject (me) would stand a metre and a half in front of a simple paper backdrop. The camera – my Nikon D50 with a 70-300mm zoom, set at the middle of its range – would be placed on a tripod two metres distant from the subject. Lighting would come from two variable intensity flashes. The key was placed camera right and diffused by firing it through an umbrella; to create more depth to the image the second speedlight was placed, undiffused, camera left firing forward over the subject’s shoulder.
I adjusted the intensity of the two flashes so the two lights were balanced and giving a good exposure with the lens stopped down to f16 and a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. The ISO was set to 200, the lowest possible with the D50. The camera would be triggered with a hand-held infrared trigger.
To allow me to achieve the level of continuity I would need to be able to match up the strips taken from different shots into a continuous portrait, I marked the place where I should stand and chose a point on the wall behind the camera to focus on. I tried to remember the way my stance felt.
It had been my intention to assume a neutral expression in all of the pictures, but the process was fun and as well as simply letting my face look blankly out at some nominal passport official I started taking pictures while smiling, frowning and making a “concentrating” face. Time passed, I nipped up and down from the attic to the bathroom, shaved off a bit more of my beard, changed clothes and swapped hats and glasses. To finish off, I shot another four sets of eyes, this time covered by four different cameras. I put a wider lens on the camera (a Zenitar 16mm) and shot some production stills. By five o’clock I had all the pictures I thought I needed…
Arabella Boxer –The New First Slice Your Cookbook (Grub Street, 1998)