Self Portraits

Who Wore It Better?

If you’ve ever met me or read any of my blog entries, you probably know that I believe photography is one of the best jobs in the world, and that I consider myself seriously lucky to be doing it professionally. Sometimes a portrait subject will ask what I’d do for work if I didn’t make pictures, and I honestly don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine breaking up with photography, or cheating on it with some floozy of a tech job. That said, however, it’s also true that like any relationship, the light can go out if you don’t occasionally stoke the fire. I don’t know any photographers, regardless of how much they love creating images, who don’t need to recharge their creative batteries from time to time with a personal project. So, it was in that keep-the-fires-lit spirit that I undertook the surprisingly entertaining extracurricular project of ruining classic paintings by inserting my face into them.  The process is pretty simple, but requires lots of attention to detail:

1.  Settle on a painting you'd like to debase. If you’re like me, the problem won’t be finding a painting you like; it’ll be narrowing it down.
2.  Photograph yourself. Obviously, it's crucial that the position of your head match the position of the portrait subject's head.  If you're off by much at all, you'll have problems when you get into Photoshop.  It's also necessary to match the lighting in the painting as closely as possible. Your facial structure will almost certainly be different than the portrait subject’s, so the shadows may not look the same and you may have to cheat the light around a little, but make sure the quality of the light is as close as you can make it. Last, try not be wildly amiss with your camera angle and lens focal length.
3.  Cut your face out (in Photoshop, I mean!) and put it into the painting.  Because everyone's head is shaped differently, odds are good that your face won't map perfectly over the existing one.  Parts of the face from the original painting will likely peek out from behind yours, so expect to clone the painting a bit to make it look right.  Color, contrast, etc. won't match either, so that will all have to be adjusted.  You'll also need to steal some texture from elsewhere in the painting and lay it over top, and you'll need to run some combination of filters (and probably the smudge tool) to make your face look less like a photo and more like it's part of the painting.  Frankly, I haven't done a perfect texture job on any of these images, but I've done it well enough to be happy.

And here are the images!  As always, click on any you'd like to see larger.
First is Ingres's 1811 portrait of Charles-Joseph-Lauren Cordier.  This was at the top of my list to try because it’s the cover image for my well-worn, unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, which I have fond memories of reading on trains while passing through Europe at the tender age of 19.  It's a pretty thrilling story. A sailor is arrested on his wedding day and falsely imprisoned in a grim island fortress for fourteen years, at which time he’s finally able to make a daring escape, recover the vast fortune left to him by a fellow inmate, and exact revenge on the men who conspired to destroy his life. You haven’t read it? Then what are you reading this for?! Get off your ass, get down to the library, and get back on your ass and read it.  And don’t try to cheat and watch a film adaptation, either—they've never made a good one.

The book begins during Napoleon’s exile, just before his return to power, so naturally I started looking at Napoleon.  This romantic portrait by Jacques-Louis David in 1801 was the first of five versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and it's the one I liked the best. It strikes me as gleefully over the top.

That, of course, made me want to tackle the realistic version of the scene, as painted by Paul Delaroche in 1850.  In 1849, Delaroche was visiting the Louvre with a nobleman who had a large Napoleonic collection, and who commented on the implausibly grandiose depiction of the scene in David's painting. That’s right—he thought it was OTT too.  So, he commissioned Delaroche to paint a more likely representation of the crossing, with Napoleon on a mule.  (Incidentally, Delaroche didn't intend for the image to be at all belittling.  He was apparently a Napoleon fan, and didn't believe that his depiction in any way takes away from the achievement.)

Ingres again.  I came across this one while looking for the portrait of Cordier, and I'll be completely honest—I was drawn to this painting because of the hair.  Well, yeah…the sword too…but mostly the hair.  Mine is so fine and lifeless (like Scarlett Johanssonsnap!), but Ingres' childhood friend Amédée-David, le Comte de Pastoret?  He had some of the best hair I've ever seen.

Fun, right? Yes, it absolutely is, but In all seriousness, it’s also quite a useful technical exercise. Photographers have studied and emulated and just plain ripped off classic paintings by Old Masters since the inception of photography, and for good reason. Because if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. I was delighted to look through centuries-old European paintings again—reacquainting myself with some, discovering others—and it’s edifying to examine lighting to the extent necessary to recreate it. If you’re a photographer, I’d recommend it even more than reading The Count of Monte Cristo.