A Photographer’s Elaborate Transformations in His Childhood Bedroom
Christopher Smith’s photographs are technically self-portraits, though each evokes someone else: a sullen detective, a naked gladiator, a flapper, an inmate, a sword swallower, a cowboy, a choirboy, a corpse. The twenty-four-year-old photographer’s ornate, protean wardrobe provides a kind of disguise. In one image, he’s a long-maned rock star, arms cradling the neck of an electric guitar. In another, he becomes a dour bride, lips puckered as tightly as the white rosebuds in her wedding bouquet. Elsewhere, Smith’s huge, looming eyes belong to a stoned bohemian, brow bound by a headband, or a benighted coal miner, nose shadowed by soot. The range of his portraits and their shocking, evocative precision belie a modest setup. Smith works from his cramped childhood bedroom, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he lives with his mother, a homemaker, and two siblings. As he mounts the tripod and steadies the lens, he might hear his dogs bark down the hall.
In his teens, Smith studied fashion magazines and slasher flicks, longing to re-create their imagery. He began photographing himself more than a decade ago, with an old cell phone, before graduating to the digital point-and-click that he uses today. His style has matured over years of experimentation, informed by the moody glamour of Edward Steichen and the eerie surrealism of Man Ray. (Smith discovered Cindy Sherman’s theatrical self-portraits only after beginning his own project.) His setup remains rudimentary. For lighting, he relies on a reading lamp or rays from his bedroom window. For backdrops, colored paper or a blank wall. He saws off spikes from a plastic spinosaurus to make an extraterrestrial’s ears. He frays and braids leather laces to conjure the barbed wire around a runaway’s neck. In the portrait of a corpse, acrylic paint achieves the gummy texture of gore. In a shot of a Soviet man, damp paper towels have been shredded to resemble snowfall. “A lot of what you see is complete artifice that’s designed to look O.K. in a picture but really would kind of look ridiculous in real life,” Smith told me. The beauty shots capture all the austerity and eroticism of haute couture. The scenes of subjection seem plucked from a showcase at the Grand Guignol.
Smith kept his photography private until 2016, when, feeling confident in his craft, he created an Instagram account to share his snapshots in real time. (He labels most all of them with the same brief, winking caption: “Self-portrait.”) Around the same time, Smith developed new confidence in his personal life; he came out as gay, easing what he describes as a persistent sense of repression. He has since extended his repertoire, and his collection of wigs, to accommodate his vision. These days, he trawls storefronts and secondhand markets for objects that might inspire new portraits; an entire image could originate in a beach ball, a parasol, a Bible. “Sometimes it’s vague, sometimes it’s very specific,” Smith said, after describing a belted red dress that he had noticed on display in a local boutique. “By the time that I actually start shooting, I know exactly what wig I would need, what shade of lipstick, and all that.”
In his artist’s statement, Smith likens his shape-shifting to a sort of escapism, as though enough blush, enough blood, might overcome the “ordinariness of his everyday life” or preëmpt his dread at seeing his own reflection. In grade school, some of Smith’s peers taunted him for his thinness and pallor. Only one of his self-portraits, the very first on Instagram, depicts him without camouflage. His face is a model’s, hewn and handsome—but even now, Smith told me, the artifice of his portraits amounts to a defense mechanism, “a way for me to look at myself as someone who is sort of sexy, someone who is dangerous, who is edgy, who is interesting and exciting and glamorous. I’m none of those things.” His images suggest less the efforts of a mimic than the bliss of someone who has at last unleashed his brawling alter egos. For each figure, Smith has contrived a set, a getup, a stance, a glance. The spirit that he supplies is his own.