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
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.