As the narrow-eyed stare of my byline photograph suggests, I have a pathological hatred of having my picture taken. I have the utmost respect for models: I can’t think of anything worse than being subjected to a constant barrage of shutter snaps.
In the 19th century, Native American tribes believed that photography could steal the soul. My fear is more concrete, namely that a bad fashion choice, bad hair day or just a badly timed grimace could be immortalised. The advent of Google image search, Facebook tagging and Instagram means that they’re immortalised and accessible. It’s a phobia I know many other share. Hence the proliferation of the “selfie” – the idea being that you can control your own depiction, and decide if it’s worthy of publishing.
So it was with trepidation that I agreed to have my picture taken by the artist Walter Hugo as part of his latest series of portraits. Hugo uses a giant camera obscura to capture his images the good old-fashioned way, fixing them on plate glass with silver nitrate. He’s installed himself in the basement of Paul Smith’s newly expanded shop on Albemarle Street in London for an exhibition opening tomorrow to run during Frieze Art Fair.
Of course, it brings up a whole host of Dickensian issues. Firstly, there’s no retouching on the plate glass. Secondly, there’s no re-shooting. Both anathema to contemporary fashion photography. Hugo recently shot a series of lookbook images for Smith with the same olde-worlde provisos.
The process is nothing I’ve experienced before: the exposure takes 17 seconds, the opposite of an iPhone snap. There’s a clamp to hold your head in position. And it took me a long time to decide on what to wear. It’s sequined Marc Jacobs. Which may be a foolish seasonal choice as, bar the glass plate’s propensity to smash, Hugo asserts that the image can last for 500 years, much longer than a paper counterpart.
It didn’t get me over that photographic phobia, but interestingly I don’t hate the results. Even though it’s about as far away from an arms-length “selfie” as you can possibly get.