Perhaps it's self-serving, even unbelievable, and as an artist I've rarely thought that making self-portraits was narcissistic. It seems to me a way of knowing the self. A visual artist's way of seeing the self: since visual artists are so used to learning about the world through seeing, through drawing, it seems only natural they would examine themselves that way. Few painters have avoided the self-portrait as a subject.
In some ways, of course, every painting, every photograph, is a self-portrait: we do reveal ourselves through what we choose to show, through our choices, our decisions, our technique. This idea, full of truth, has been taken to absurd lengths by some art theorists, though, who view every work as autobiographical and only autobiographical. As though every character in a novel was a self-portrait, as though every character in a painting was only the artist. It seems to me that this fallacy of autobiography, a popular one among less thoughtful art critics, presumes narcissism. I submit that it's the critic's narcissism, projected onto the artist, rather than the artist's, in many cases.
On the other hand, I don't think the extreme opposite idea, that the artist can completely remove him or herself from the artwork, is possible. Even attempts by artists and composers to remove their ego-choices from their art, by using chance means and indeterminacy, continue to reveal the artist's self: while personality-level choices may have been subverted, nonetheless a performance of a John Cage composition still sounds like a John Cage composition. It's a paradox: the impossibility of being completely removed from what one makes.
Looking at artist's self-portraits—which I do believe are more honest than memoir; memoir being a story one tells about oneself, which often is less revealing than one might imagine—is an interesting exercise in self-revelation. I note that more painters do self-portraits than photographers; the painted self-portrait has a long tradition to support it. But there are portraits of many photographers at work, taken by their friends and companions. So we often see them with their cameras in hand, preparing for the moment of releasing the shutter, or having just done so.
The camera is not as flattering as paint, let's be honest. There's less opportunity to conceal flaws in a photograph, as with memoir or painting. It's possible to do, of course, and it's possible to use the self-portrait photograph as a performative presentation of the self: acting, performance, display, self-aggrandizement, or self-mockery. All these have been done.
As a photographer making a self-portrait, one chooses the moment to release the shutter. Waiting for the perfect light, having set up the best possible composition. Photography is always about light and shadow; no matter what else an image is about, it's really about light.
The composition chanced upon with the three mirrors is what interested me about making this self-portrait. So it's a "'found" self-portrait. I was the only subject I had available at the moment. The mirrors are on the side of the cabin in northernmost Minnesota, up in the Superior National Forest, where I go for a week's camping almost every August. We're miles from electricity, running water, and other modern amenities; camping is usually primitive, in tents. But we do have this old hunter's cabin, falling down slowly, and needing to be replaced. (We also have some other buildings we've made, rather than inherited, such as the cookhouse and pantry.)
The same arrangement, on a different day.
What I learn from making the occasional self-portrait is that my mental self-image is rarely in congruence with my actual person. Of course, that's something nearly everyone experiences: we're all better-looking in our minds. I find the practice of actual observation of the actual self to be a sort of Zen practice: see what's actually there, rather than what we think is there. It's a good visual meditation to keep you focused and grounded.
I don't do dress-up self-portraits, the way some photographers do. (Or the way virtually everyone on every online social networking website does these days: we live in a very narcissistic culture at present.) I don't do costumed self-portraits the way some of my artists friends do, to express aspects of their self, to play at different personae. I've always been more interested in discovering who I authentically was, rather than role-playing. (Many people are surprised that I have no interest in role-playing fantasy games: but it's the same lifelong desire to be authentic and honest that makes me feel such RPGs are a supreme waste of time.)
Perhaps it's to learn about ourselves that we make self-portraits, regardless of whether they're performed, or trying to be authentic. (Another kind of performance, let's be honest.) I think it's an important exercise for every artist to do, from time to time: find out who you are, right now, right here. Look into your own eyes, and see what you can discover about yourself that you didn't already know. Go deeper into your own art and craft, by going deeper into your self.