Street Photography Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits

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© Lee Friedlander. New York City, 1966

“At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing. But as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings.”

Lee Friedlander

For today’s compositional lesson I want to introduce the idea of incorporating self-portraits into your street photography.

While self-portraits don’t fit into the textbook definition of “composition” per se– I still feel that they are an interesting compositional technique we can add to our toolkit to make more interesting images.

Self-portraits and street photography

Self-portrait of Stanley Kubrick
Self-portrait of Stanley Kubrick

Self-portraits have been done by artists throughout the ages– from painters, photographers, sculptors, etc.

When it comes to street photography, many photographers have also created self-portraits in their work by either photographing themselves or themselves in the context of their urban environment.

One lesson I learned about 3 years ago was when I taught a street photography workshop in Brighton with David Gibson from In-Public. During his presentation he shared something along the lines of: “If you have nothing to photograph, take a photograph of yourself.”

So during this lesson we will explore some of the great self-portraits in street photography history, and analyze what make them so great.

Warning: There is some nudity in this post which might not be safe for work.

Lee Friedlander’s Self-Portraits

When it comes to street photography and self-portraits, Lee Friedlander is certainly the master. He has taken self-portraits of himself for several decades, even publishing a book of them. The book is an enigmatic look into the wry humor of Friedlander, his love of his wife, and a self-exploration of himself.

So let us dive into some of his most famous self-portraits in which he embeds his shadows into his images:

Shadows & Self-Portraits

In this section, we will explore Friedlander and how he embedded his shadows into his self-portraits:

Lee Friedlander. New York City, 1966

New York City, 1966
© Lee Friedlander. New York City, 1966

This is probably one of the most famous self-portraits by Lee Friedlander. In this photograph, we see a shadow of Friedlander imposed upon a woman with a fur-coat. The photograph is quite ominous and dark — it almost looks like there is a stalker following this lady.

In terms of composition, I don’t think it is the best photograph. The right side of the frame is a bit messy and doesn’t add much visually to the image– although it does give you a sense of place that it is NYC.

In terms of the light, you can see that the light is coming from behind Friedlander– which causes his shadow to cast behind the woman’s back.

Lee Friedlander. Minneapolis, Minnesota 1966

Minneapolis, Minnesota 1966
© Lee Friedlander. Minneapolis, Minnesota 1966

In this photograph as well– you see a woman facing Friedlander. I forget who the woman is– I presume it is his wife. Anyways, I love the crossed arms she has– which is generally a sign of disapproval. And you have Friedlander’s shadow right on her chest– once again, giving you the dark and ominous feel of some sort of stalker figure– which makes the image more enigmatic and curious.

Self-portrait of Friedlander and wife

© Lee Friedlander

In this photograph by Friedlander– it is set in a bedroom of what seems to be Friedlander’s bedroom. There is strong geometry in the shot– with the bathroom door open (rectangles) which mirror the rectangle of the picture frame on the right of the frame, and of course the beam of sunlight in the middle which also makes a rectangle.

In terms of what is actually going on in the shot– we see Friedlander’s wife leaning against the wall, in her underwear topless, and hands behind her back — with a very open and trusting gesture facing him. Of course we also see that she is topless– showing how much she trusts Friedlander to photograph her in the nude.

I presume Friedlander had this concept for a shot, and asked her to stand in the patch of light in the center of the shot. Then he placed his feet correctly so he got his own shadow superimposed upon her.

The effect that I get from this photograph is that Friedlander is literally, emotionally, and spiritually putting himself into his wife. His wife and him are one being– separate but part of one another. For those of you who who have significant others, I am sure you can attest to this great source of synergy in a relationship.

Framing & Self-Portraits

Another great way that Friedlander created great self-portraits was to frame himself into his photographs. Some of these examples are also included in my compositional lesson on “framing.”

Friedlander Self-Portrait & Tiny Reflection

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #6: Framing
© Lee Friedlander

In this photograph, we see a great array of visual shapes and forms in the photograph. There are lots of rectangles in the photograph which fill the frame nicely:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #6: Framing
Figure 1: Note all of these elements fill the frame

But of course the main element which is fascinating is the dark and ominous outline of Friedlander’s shadow and his double-self portrait (one of his shadow and one of the little square in the middle):

Figure 2: Note the double self-portrait of Friedlander in the shot.

The shot has all these great details too– the man in the background with the suit and tie and hat, the white mustang, the sprawling urban landscape int he background.

But of course what makes the shot great is the double self-portrait (his dark outline and the reflection of himself of the small square in the middle of the frame). If you are curious where the little white square is coming from– it is probably a small mirror inside the store which he is shooting.

Lee Friedlander. New York City, 1968

New York City, 1968
© Lee Friedlander. New York City, 1968

Another great self-portrait of himself is in this photograph he shot in New York City. Similarly to the prior photo, there are strong rectangular and square-shaped geometry in the shot:

Figure 1: Some of the rectangular boxes in the shot.
Figure 1: Some of the rectangular boxes in the shot.

The squares and rectangles fill out almost every corner of the frame– and of course in the center of the shot is Friedlander himself– holding his Leica up to his eye.

What I also enjoy about the shot is not only the self-portrait of Friedlander through the glass– but also the people walking in the background which add more depth and life to the shot:

Figure 2: Outline of Friedlander’s self-portrait (and camera) plus the people in the background.

The frame is also well-balanced with the strong geometrically shaped things on the left side of the frame:

Figure 3: The nicely spaced things in the background which balance the frame

In the self-portrait below by Friedlander, you can see how important positioning is when it comes to framing yourself inside self-portraits:

Lee Friedlander. Buffalo, New York, 1968

© Lee Friedlander. Buffalo, New York, 1968

In this photograph in Buffalo, Friedlander saw an interesting store that sold frames. The frames themselves are skewed– which make strong geometric shapes:

Figure 1: Note all the interesting geometric shapes the frames in the shop make.

Then of course when Friedlander sees the scene– he takes a self portrait of himself perfectly framed inside one of the frames. If you look at his positioning, he holds his camera off to the left– and inserts his head inside the frame:

Figure 2: The main frame Friedlander is framed inside

As you can see, even though you are out shooting on the streets and find no interesting subjects to shoot– look for frames, reflections, and other interesting geometric shapes — and add yourself as a subject to the shot.

Route 9W, New York 1969

© Lee Friedlander. Route 9W, New York 1969

This is quite possibly one of my favorite self-portraits by Lee Friedlander. First of all, I love it because of the religious and symbolic connotation.

If you first look at the photo, you see the reflection and self-portrait of Lee Friedlander on the far left of the frame. I think he is shooting out of a car window, and the side-view mirror is reflecting himself. You can see his young and handsome face, his camera to eye, and his piercing eye.

In the background of the shot you see what look like Christmas lights on top– and a small little shrine and (what looks like the Virgin Mary statue) in the center of the frame– donned with a small cross and the phrase: “God bless America.”

The shot is quite somber one. The religious shrine seems so small, out of place, and a bit sad. America was founded with very strong religious principles– and certainly God is a strong part of the American fabric. Seeing Friedlander’s enigmatic gaze in the reflection is stirring– and the shift of perspective and depth in the shot from the mirror is powerful.

Self-Portraits & Surrealism

Similarly to Rene Magritte (think of the famous “Son of Man” painting of the man and the apple in front of his face) — Friedlander also explored a lot of surrealism in his self-portraits.

"Son of Man" by Rene Magritte
“Son of Man” by Rene Magritte

So take a look at Magritte’s painting– and this self-portrait by Friedlander:

Friedlander Self-Portrait & Trophy

© Lee Friedlander

The comparison is quite stirring, no?

“The Son of Man” was painted by Rene Magritte in 1964– around the same time that Friedlander took this photograph. I am pretty certain that Friedlander borrowed the idea of super-imposing objects in front of his face to create a surreal image.

To analyze this image by Friedlander– you see the trophy which covers up and obscures Friedlander’s face. You also have great leading lines of the star-donned line going into his head.

We see Friedlander’s wry humor at work — perhaps suggesting that he is some sort of winner– as the trophy is over his face. And it isn’t a fancy-looking trophy either. Rather, it looks like one of those cheap plastic fake-gold plated trophies you win at your 3rd grade swim meet (just for participating).

Lee Friedlander. Self-portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts,1968

Self-portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts,1968
© Lee Friedlander. Self-portrait, Provincetown, Massachusetts,1968

Another hilarious self-portrait from Friedlander is of himself — sitting in a living room or motel room– with a light bulb covering his face. You see the tacky or kitschy wallpaper of the leaves in the background, and Friedlander’s expression is quite bored, dull, and lifeless.

The bulb over his face suggests perhaps a light bulb went off in his head (like getting a good idea?) But at the same time– he looks as if he is devoid of thoughts all-together.

There is also a nice allusion to a photograph he took 3 years ago– also a self portrait (with a light bulb in the background):

Lee Friedlander. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1965

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1965
© Lee Friedlander. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1965

Let us look at another example of surrealism in Friedlander’s self-portraits:

Lee Friedlander. Wilmington, Delaware 1965

Wilmington, Delaware 1965
© Lee Friedlander. Wilmington, Delaware 1965

In another shot by Friedlander– you see the sense of surrealism that his self-portraits evoke. In this image, he takes a photograph of a chair through a storefront window. From the angle in which he shoots it and the positioning of his shadow– it almost looks as if he is sitting in the shadow.

Not only does it look like his shadow is sitting in the chair which creates a surreal effect, but also the fact that you can only see his head and his legs– as if he was some alien creature with only a head and legs as a body.

>> To see more self-portraits by Friedlander– you can see them here.

My self-portraits

Whenever I am bored when shooting on the streets and have nothing better to shoot– I enjoy taking portraits of myself as well:

Eric Kim Self Portrait-93830023
Lansing, 2013
Eric Kim Self Portrait-87150010
Istanbul, 2013
Eric Kim Self Portrait-87150018
Istanbul, 2013


Eric Kim Self Portrait-87160030
Istanbul, 2013
Eric Kim Self Portrait-93730036
Pittsburgh, 2013
Eric Kim Self Portrait-93750009
Ann Arbor, 2013

Lee Friedlander: “Self Portrait”


Thanks to my buddy Servando Gomez from Indianapolis for giving me a copy of Lee Friedlander’s “Self Portrait” book. It is an incredible book– and for anyone interested in self-portraits, I highly recommend the book.


Vivian Maier Self-Portrait
Vivian Maier Self-Portrait

There are lots of times when you are out on the streets and there is nobody interesting to photograph. When you are in situations like these– try to incorporate yourself into your own street photographs.

Make yourself the actor in your play. Find shadows, reflections, and superimpose objects in front of you. Create images that are surreal, stirring, or humorous. Consider your framing— and make a frame around yourself.

So if you want an assignment to go out and shoot — practice shooting self-portraits and upload your best images to my Facebook fan page. Look forward to seeing your self-portraits!