Self-portraiture is usually seen as one of two things: either a somewhat narcissistic piece of art made by a well-known, self-congratulating artist, or a somewhat narcissistic MySpace photo taken by a not-so-well-known, self-congratulating person. The idea of self-portraiture has changed over the years, especially with the advent of the digital camera. It has become too easy to make an image of yourself — just point and click, and there you go; a second later you have a hazy-eyed picture of yourself that you can immediately review.

The idea of the narcissistic self-portrait is different, though, when you consider the other end of this concept: When you’re stuck in a quiet room with a mirror, your lovely face and some ink pens. And you sit there staring at yourself for hours. In that time, you’ll probably be able to produce a few sketches of differing, flattering-to-unflattering quality.

I don’t think we spend enough time with our faces. It’s the fleetingness of it, really: We glance at ourselves in mirrors or reflective coffee shop windows for a few seconds a few times a day. And similarly, we catch fleeting glances of ourselves in the digital photographs that are posted, quantity over quality, on social networking sites. These self-portraits are just glimpses, and in the same way, we flip through these photos after glancing at each for a second of two at a time. We don’t really look at ourselves.

And glimpsing is different than looking. Glimpsing means spending as little time as possible with our faces and their unsightly bits: zits, moles and floppy chins. Looking, on the other hand, means staring at these faults of ours without flinching. We’re our own worst critics, and it really is hard to look at the things we dislike about ourselves. It might actually be a good thing that we aren’t able to see ourselves without the aid of something — a mirror, a camera, the bowl of a spoon.

With this in mind, self-portraiture can be self-congratulating, but more often than not, it’s self-critical. It forces artists to stare at signs of old age and imperfection and re-produce those things on a canvas, in a photograph or in a sketch book. Whether or not these imperfections are re-created in the image is an entirely different story; the person may choose to cover them up or display them at his or her own discretion. But the point is that analog self-portraiture involves a persistent stare at oneself, one’s faults and one’s changing self-understanding.

Chuck Close is a world-renowned American artist primarily known for his photorealistic portraits and self-portraits. Much of his art is painted on larger-than-life canvases that can be as big as 10 feet by 12 feet. Close’s concept of himself as an artist changed, however, when in 1988 he suddenly became paralyzed from the neck down. Although he was able to regain some control of his body, he had to have paint brushes attached to his arms in order to paint. He still continued to work, however, and it is fascinating to see how his self-portrayal has changed over the years.

Close’s self-portrait titled Big Self-Portrait, painted from 1967 to 1968 depicts the skinny, artsy upstart shirtless from the shoulders up. He has a smoldering cigarette in his mouth, his eyes are eerily half-opened and hazy. His head is tipped upward, cockily daring someone to challenge him. The image appears self-appreciating. It’s a glamour portrait that suggests youth, drugs and sex.

Close produced another self-portrait called, yes, Self-Portrait in 1977. In this painting, Close has a full beard, and his hairline has receded to the top of his head. The painting still depicts him from the shoulders up, although this time he looks directly at the viewer in his collared, button-up shirt. His eyes are open, expressive and lucid. His image suggests his stark reality: he is the aging painter.

Finally, we’ll jump to 2000, 12 years after he became paralyzed form the neck down. The portrait is also titled Self-Portrait, though the painting contains only his head from the neck up. This reminds us of the fact that this is the only part of Close’s body over which he has immediate agency. He is completely bald. His eyes look off the corner of the picture, evasive, suggesting something that has been closed-off or disconnected. Perhaps it’s meant to remind the viewer that his paintings are now made with the help of an assistant, because Close does not paint these intimate portraits by himself anymore.

Close’s self-portrayal changed a great degree over a period of forty years. And the way we see ourselves changes over time as well, for better or for worse; it’s parallel to how our looks, our memories and our relationships change. Who we are is grittier than what the haphazard glance will reveal, and a self-portrait contains more than attractive aesthetics; it contains personal meaning, the passage of time and details we might not want people to know or care about. It’s honest, and honesty is not always pretty.

The fact that a self-portrait, by its own nature, encourages self reflection is unique. By spending time with our own image, something we rarely spend more than an hour a day looking at unadorned, we are forced to look at ourselves in a way that can’t be replicated with the instant glimpses of digital cameras and the age of profile pictures. We’ve begun to take the self-portrait for granted as something that is effortless to create, and equally effortless to delete if it depicts us in an unfavorable light.

A self-portrait is easy to conceive. Minimally, it takes a pen, a napkin, a mirror and an opened eye. What may be more difficult is looking at yourself in a way that’s more than just a casual glance.

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