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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Shadow Selfie!

I don't care if shadow selfies are portraits or not, because that only depends on what you mean when you say "portrait." No, what I am interested in at the moment is what they actually are.

When a shadow of a human appears at the bottom of the frame, in the right place, it strikes us as the shadow of the photographer. While the presence of the photographer is always implicit in a photo, such a shadow tends to reify the presence, to make it explicit. At the very least, it tends to draw our attention to the fact of the photographer, and the accompanying fact that someone was looking at whatever we're looking at.

The window metaphor recedes, and a sort of seeing-through-another's-eyes comes forward.

This was exploited to great effect in the book Predator by one Jean-Marie Donat, who made a whole book of found photos in which the shadowed figure is wearing a hat. The photos are frequently of children, or young women. But really anything works, after a while.

Our natural reaction to any photograph is to invent a story, a world, to contain it. The presence of the shadow invites us to include the photographer in the story, it reminds us of their presence and nudges us to include them. Why are they there? Why are they photographing this, specifically? All of this optional, of course, we can still exclude the photographer. We can simply walk away without making up a story at all. The photograph, nevertheless, nudges us in these directions.

The book's title suggests a possible story for the photographer, a spooky one, and the effect is really quite something. I have not seen the book itself, but I've seen a smattering of photos and it's borderline electrifying. It requires only a single word, and a repeated simple motif to generate an entire creepy world out of what are in the end just a bunch of snapshots made by different people across 50+ years of time.

In general, I think this tends to support my general thesis about how we look at photos, and also has something to say specifically about the shadow-selfie.


  1. These shadows are very common in amateur snapshots, where the photographer is fixated on the intended subject, and doesn't notice their own shadow intruding into the frame. Assigning a random collection of these things the label "predator" doesn't override this rather obvious fact, or activate a different meaning, at least not for me. Also, it looks like some of the shadows-with-hats included in the book look more plausibly like women, indicating carelessness or laziness in the edit. Dude needs to watch some proper horror films, if that was the intention. I think it most unwise to try and spin other people's photographs, even amateurs', into some specious commentary about extreme human behavior.

  2. Trying to think of a suitably energising title for a sequence of photos of stuff of interest on the ground, taken with my phone, into which my toecaps keep photobombing. "Your Feet's Too Big" doesn't quite do it.

    I think you're right, though. I remember seeing what seemed a rather dull sequence of shots of battered children's playgrounds at a workshop, then the photographer announced they were all taken in Sarajevo during the Balkans conflict, and suddenly everyone sat up straight...