More than twenty (20) years of My Friend Warren!
My Friend Warren began in 1993 while I was a student at Sonoma State University. I never thought I'd still be working/thinking on it twenty years later.
Since I was a kid I've "played" in the mirror, self-consciously examining what I looked like while I practiced various movements, poses, or faces. What do I look like when I do this? My mental picture of myself was so different than how I actually appeared in the mirror. Even after all these years, I still can't quite believe that's how I look from this angle, or that. So, in 1993, I started taking pictures of my mirror-selfs to see if they could provide me with a different sort of description of my face. It then became a way of documenting myself at random moments, as if to catch myself by surprise to see what I really looked like.
I did worry about this whole notion of "the random moment". Somewhere I read randomness is a useful shorthand for describing a pattern that's bigger than anything we can hold in our minds. I realized I did choose to use my camera at a particular point in time, in effect that moment was deemed to be more than ordinary by the recording of it. A collection of "more than ordinary" photos hardly qualifies as "random". I still take photos at "random" moments, but I no longer believe the moment is truly random.
This is the standard format for My Friend Warren: Camera is held at arm's length in my left hand, approximately level. I am always the only person in the frame. Other formats were toyed with, but not pursued. This consistency creates a uniformity of composition and a deeper investigation into it. It's essentially the same photo hundreds of times: my mug in front of a variety of backdrops.
I am always conscious of the camera, there may be a coy disavowal as I look away or pretend to be distracted, but since the camera is in my hand how could I not be aware of it? I play to the camera to different degrees. Some of the results are amusing, others are not. Some are arrived at through serious thought. Due to the length of time this project has existed, a description of my aging is being created - hair, glasses, and skin - all give notice of the passage of time. I've attempted to disrupt this narrative by arranging the images in a non-chronological manner to reinforce the idea of the random isolated moment. This is the way memory works, not tied down to a time-based structure, but able to leap about with abandon. A non-linear visual diary.
About twenty 35mm point-and-shoot film cameras were used along the way. A few dollars spent at the thrift store and I had a new camera. This explains the differences in closeness and sharpness of these pictures. NOTE: I have never claimed to be a photographer. January 2007 was when I began including images taken with digital cameras. One of my favorite cameras was a $9 digital special with no preview screen. It introduced its own distinct distortion to the image. Unfortunately, it couldn't make the switch to Windows 7 and was left behind. The change-over to digital altered the look and feel of MFW. There is less chance involved and less commitment to the image, the ease increased the amount of images taken. The physical photos are now out-numbered by easy and quick digital images.
Looking through my collection of self portraits, I would wonder, am I really that bald? That's what my lips look like? That's the shape of my pumpkin? This is what others see? And so on. Self-conscious scrutiny at its most banal. And yet, there's a familiar weight of being looked at/seen/watched by another that feels so oppressively heavy at times. The weight of another's eyes. I know I have dark brown hair and light brown eyes, but I think of myself as having light brown hair and dark brown eyes. In the first Matrix movie, when Morpheus tells Neo, “It is the mental projection of your digital self." Neo looks like Neo. I think that when I download myself into computerwonderland, my digital self will have dark eyes and light hair. Yes, a nice full head of pretty light-colored hair.
My Friend Warren started with photographs in an album and progressed to a collection of photographs in a box. In 1995 the sculpture students exhibited work at Sonoma State University's International Cultural Center. I showed about 60 of these photos, thumb-tacked to a wall. Facing the photos was a small rocking-chair that I reupholstered with a flat grey fabric. An attached mirror from the front of the seat was positioned at face level. Rocking and contemplating one's own reflection in front of multiple photographic reflections of me - what do we look like to others?
I've shown My Friend Warren in a few galleries, back when the physical photos were the majority. My lovely wife installed the photos in a 8'×10' grid. I have been intrigued by various reactions from viewers. Some spend only moments looking, others invest considerable time. I've watched someone jump up-and-down out of excitement. I have been asked if I feel excessively exposed by showing all these pictures of myself. No, I guess I don't. The pictures are not me, they are of me and that makes all the difference. It makes me consider the increase in video surveillance by cities and nations. The image is not the person, yet the person is held accountable by the image. The "of" becomes a distinction that disappears.
My Friend Warren has been on the Interwebs since 2004-05. Originally, only one image was displayed at a time, the viewer clicked on it to advance to the next one - tedium to view and tedium for me to code. The current grid format works somewhat better. In 2012, My Friend Warren was part of “Face Me”, a juried portrait show at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. About 900 My Friend Warren photos were displayed one at a time for 5 seconds each, in a digital picture frame that had motion-activated on/off and “shuffle” features. Same images, different format. For the determined viewer, it would take an hour and fifteen minutes to see all the photos. I doubted anyone would do so, but the potential was there. My Friend Warren was awarded a "Juror's Merit Award".
Now My Friend Warren is a few 100 MB of data on a hard-drive. As time has passed it has grown beyond trying to catch the random moment or physical description. This project has become a diary; It's also been a means of communication - some photos are for specific people, whether they know it or not. Sometimes I have thought of My Friend Warren as a performance. I do seem to enjoy posing in front of signs. NOTE: I was not “Employee of the Month” and I do not eat BBQ. This project is in part about showing self-consciousness, the weight of it; it's still about trying to create a mental picture of what I look like. In a way, My Friend Warren has its own certain momentum that has evolved into habit and obligation.
Sometime during the early 2000s, my lovely wife started suspecting that I have a small touch of “Face Blindness”. I have difficulty distinguishing between similar looking people, I have to struggle to hold a mental picture of someone's face. A new hair-style can throw me off because I seem to rely on hair to identify the person in question. This may be the seed of inquiry within My Friend Warren.
The film-based images are as I received them from the photo-developer at the grocery store. They were scanned and the resolution was reduced for the Web and that's it. Digital images are simply cropped and resolution-reduced, a little sharpening. Photoshop is not used to create these images. Nor do I use filters. The immediacy of the snapshot is still important. I will continue to add photos as I take them.
The widespread use of smartphones and social media has led to a phenomenon of self-portraits known as "selfies". These are usually derided as a sign of a decadent culture and a celebration of narcissistic behavior. Technology has provided a simple way to record 'n broadcast one's visage and of course people will do so, no surprise there. I see selfies and My Friend Warren as a sign of convergent evolution, which describes the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages - bat and bird flight for example. Selfies exist in/for social media, so I can say that maybe six of these images could be categorized under the heading "selfie", as I have used them as profile pictures on social media. The context of the image is a key to its definition. But really, I don't care. I will continue with My Friend Warren regardless of where the culture is at. Selfies are a fad - just like the Internet.
My Friend Warren is not meant to define who I am or who I think I am, or even who I hope you think I am. Some viewers may believe they know me better after viewing the photos and that is fine. There is no objective point of view from which to know a person, lives are fluid and endlessly changing. Some of these pictures of me are awful and my vanity says I should not include them, but at this point, I've included so many un-flattering pictures of myself it doesn't matter. I look at these photos and still have a hard time equating these pictures with what I think I look like. This is me? This is what others see? Really? Hmmmm, I'm not as pretty as I thought (hoped). It seems I have only a vague idea of what I look like and the photos haven't helped. The more I do the less I know. I think this may be a key point for me. I am reminded of the old saying: A person with one watch knows what time it is, a person with two watches is less sure. What about 1000 watches?