Photographer Lily Bertrand-Webb on Self Portraiture Pre-Social Media

Published on 5 minutes read
Words by Molly Boniface, Imagery by Lily Bertrand-Webb
"It’s the cochlear implant, I call it my miracle. While wearing it I can hear 96%, and without it I can’t hear anything at all. I can’t hear when I sleep, when I swim, when I surf; I am half hearing and half deaf in this world. I’m also half Dominican and half English, I have always seen myself in halves."

Lily Bertrand-Webb’s studio is filled to the brim with folders of her archive collections. An impressive array of broken cameras and lots, and lots of photographs. In a photo of herself, in which she couldn't have been more than 3 years old, she’s holding her godfather’s camera and taking pictures. Another self-portrait is displayed in a lightbox that had recently been shown at the Timothy Taylor Gallery. Taken over lockdown, a difficult time in her life, she now finds it uncomfortable to look at.

With photographs that can be found in the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery, her subjects have ranged from the artist Damien Hirst, model Cara Delevingne, musician Rita Ora, novelist Elizabeth Day to the actor Barry Keoghan. Bertrand-Webb exists between Cornwall and Shepherd’s Bush Market, operating out of her studio at the end of Market Lane, a road saturated with garments, accessories, pets, food, homeware, and anything else you can imagine sold on a trestle table.

Many photographers make you aware of what’s in front of the lens, not behind it. They tend to be observers who erase themselves as they draw attention to their subjects. But what happens when a photographer steps outside of their role as impartial observer and turns the camera on themselves?

Webb isn’t interested in being an invisible photographer. Her lens is both introverted and extroverted, capturing the beauty she sees in others while using photography as a tool to witness her changing self. A visual archive of her experiences. She describes herself as always existing in ‘halves’, a notion that comes through in her ability to be both behind the camera and in front of it. Her work shows a clear intimacy with the self as well as with others.

How did you get into photography?

I was born with hearing, but I lost it gradually and wore hearing aids until I had a major operation that changed my life. It’s the cochlear implant, I call it my miracle. While wearing it I can hear 96%, and without it I can’t hear anything at all. I can’t hear when I sleep, when I swim, when I surf; I am half hearing and half deaf in this world. I’m also half Dominican and half English, I have always seen myself in halves. I like to think that one of the reasons that I picked up the camera is because it doesn’t require hearing.

How does self-portraiture differ from taking portraits of others? Are they comparable experiences?

As I get older and keep taking self-portraits, I start to see them as a diary. I go back to self-portraits from ten years ago and it’s really interesting to revisit a particular moment, remember what I was doing, how I felt and how I chose to express myself. I shoot on analogue cameras and one of the reasons I do that is because I have to take my time with it. There is a lot of thought behind the whole process, and I love being in the dark room. When taking self-portraits on a film camera, I can’t see what it’s going to look like so it’s exciting. I generally take experimental self-portraits and only when I am in the mood to do so. When I was in my early twenties I went through a medical procedure and I recently found the self-portrait I took on that day. It was surreal to look back on such a significant moment in my life that I don’t think about much now but still shaped me into who I am today.

Left: Belvoir Castle Winter, 2019. 

Right: Winter Lockdown, 2022.

The current moment we live in is so saturated with self-image. Does this impact your method? Are you more resistant to posting self-portraits?

I wonder what people’s response would be if they saw me post a picture of myself and that affects the way I take the self-portrait. I purposefully make self-portraits more creative, although it is very rare for me to post my own self-portraits because it is such an intimate thing reserved for my own record. That’s why I picked up the camera in the first place; I was doing it for myself because I enjoy it, not for others. At the same time I love meeting people and the camera gives me access to worlds that I would otherwise never have access to, it’s given me a secret key into people’s lives. I’ve met so many characters and traveled the world because of my work. In some ways the self-portrait is a way for me to have a private moment with my camera, a moment all to myself. I also think many people — including myself — don’t like photos of themselves at the time they are taken. But then they don’t look at it for years and when they see it again they're like “I was so young! I look great!”. It’s funny, I’m 35 this year and I am starting to see that ageing process. I’m watching friends getting married and having children. Ageing is a beautiful and scary thing, but the beautiful thing about photography is that it freezes time.

Do you have a preferred self-portrait camera?

I have got 3 main cameras that I love shooting with. First is my party camera. It's a little point and shoot camera (the Contax T3), I have got it in my bag right now. It’s easy for me to carry. I shoot with that at night-time. I have 2 other cameras; Mamiya’s medium format camera that I mainly use for portraits and then I have my digital camera on the side which I mainly use when I have to shoot commercials. I’ve got lots of broken cameras in my studios. I have no preference for self-portraits, I have done them with all different types of cameras, although I do hate shooting selfies on my phone.

As a film photographer what do you think about the Y2K digital camera revival that is overwhelming Instagram and ad-campaigns now. Are you tempted to switch formats?

I prefer film. It’s so funny, when I graduated from university in 2011 my tutors tried to persuade me to stop shooting on film, they said that film was dying. They closed down the dark room and let go of the technician who had been there for 25 years. They replaced the dark room with computers, scanners and printers. I was stubborn and continued shooting on film even though it bankrupted me. I was very resilient; I had a couple of years battling with clients on commissions trying to persuade them to allow me to shoot on film because I believed that my work was much better that way. But the last couple of years have been so easy for me in that regard, film finally paid off. People now commission me to shoot on film so I don't have to put up a fight. At the moment I am riding that wave. Maybe I am out of touch with the digital trend... I did meet someone recently who brought this old school digital camera, I guess that’s because it’s cheap and it looks retro? I think people like imperfection at the moment because with digital retouching everything looks so perfect that it’s not real anymore. People prefer imperfection and nostalgia; pictures that seem genuine. Maybe it isn’t cool to have a perfect retouched self-portrait, it’s quite boring.

Left: St. Agnes, Autumn 2017.

Right: The Apple of my Eye, Ireland.

I read that you’re a fan of William Eggleston, he is one of my all-time favourites. The colours in your work are truly fantastic and totally reminiscent of Eggleston. Do you prefer shooting in colour to black & white?

He’s amazing! I remember discovering him when I was in university and not many people knew about him, but I think he’s being celebrated a lot more now because of his colour photography. I started off with photography by shooting on black and white and that’s how I learnt the printing process in the dark room. Another favourite photographer of mine is Lee Miller. I am obsessed with her; I will go back to your question in a minute but — Lee Miller is one of the photographers who really made me want to pursue photography. I was given a book of her work when I was at school. Since the name read Lee Miller, I opened the book assuming it was about a male photographer and found that she was actually this beautiful American woman. She started out as a model in New York before moving to Paris to work with Man Ray, where she learned to do photography in the dark room. She was Man Ray’s muse and a member of the surrealist movement. She had a very creative, abstract, experimental eye. She invented solarisation as a technique, but Man Ray took the credit. Her work is black and white, and I do have early black and white work of my own but when I went to university and discovered colour photography I fell in love. I have started shooting in black and white again in the last couple of months, but I don’t think you can really copy classic monochrome photography. Maybe one day, but at the moment, I see the world in colour. Another of my favourite photographers is Saul Leiter, he does abstract colour photography. He was branded as ‘tacky’ and ‘too commercial’ by black and white photographers of his time.

Have you always been comfortable in front of a camera? Does self-portraiture come naturally for you in that way?

I am only comfortable now because I have become more comfortable with myself. It hasn’t always been that way, growing up, like I said I had my operation at nine years old and then I had another one for my thyroid when I was fourteen, which gave me a big scar on my neck. As a teenager I really struggled with my image. I would always wear polar neck jumpers to try and hide my scar and I hid my cochlear with my hair but as time went on my confidence grew and I realised I just had to be really open and confident in myself. I have also realised, the more I’ve opened up about myself the more other people confide in me, and you realise that there is no such thing as perfect, everyone is going through their own shit. we should all just be open and hear each other out more. I live part-time in Cornwall, and I sunbathe topless all the time. I am the only person to do it, English people can be prudish! There aren’t really self-portraits of me as a teenager because I was uncomfortable. My self-portraiture developed as I got older and perhaps one day I will do like... a book (of self-portraits). Nan Goldin did that, she is another one of my favourite photographers. There’s that famous self portrait of her just after she’d been attacked by her ex-boyfriend. I think that’s a really inspirational and powerful photograph.

Left: London, 2018.

Right: Kin House, Summer 2022.

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