Happy Self-Portrait Day!

Interview with Michelle Howley
Michelle Howley Self-Portrait

Michelle Howley is the proprietor of Self-Portrait Day, where any online photographer can sign up and post their favorite self-portrait for all to see. We wanted to know what inspired her to start the site, and what she's learned about self-portraiture as a result, so we sent her some questions. Here's what she had to say.

Who are you? Tell us about yourself. A/S/L?

My name is Michele Howley. I am a 32-year-old Graphic Designer working in Manhattan. My favorite design program is Illustrator, favorite serif font is Mrs Eaves, favorite sans serif will probably always be Helvetica Neue. (I can't seem to shake that damn family.) I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with my husband, Tobyjoe. I married my only one-night stand. Oh, I'm a girl. 36C.

How did Self-Portrait Day come to be?

Self-Portrait Day began when a fellow blogger (Amanda) put up an image of herself on her own website. I immediately began to imagine her in the 3-Dimensional world. I suggested in her comments section that a bunch of us create self-portraits for the following Thursday. Unemployed at the time, and craving a design project, I began designing the site. We purchased the domain name and in three days it was up and running.

What is it about self-portraiture that floats your boat?

It might be the designer in me but I think what draws me to self-portraiture is watching how people "sell" themselves. With Self-Portrait Day, we wanted to create a site so that people could potentially discover new faces, so each person needs to stand out if he or she wants another visitor.

And then there's the visitor's role. What draws them in? Were they attracted to the person? Were they disgusted? Did they like the color blue? Did the technique draw them in? Style? I like asking these questions.

Every time I see a new self-portrait, I start coming up with stories about where the person was standing at the time they took it, or what they were thinking. I've come up with entire histories based on one small image and I love that. It's a mini window into someone else's life. Plus, my made up stories are never wrong.

What was the response like?

The response was really huge at first. We had so many new additions and visitors. Thousands of people were clicking in. The design seemed to go over well and the word got out really fast. I was shocked it was accepted so well. Totally surprised me.

Over time, our additions began to taper off. The dark ages lasted for several months. I talked about getting rid of it entirely.

Then Tobyjoe rebuilt the site. That took a couple of days of his free time. And then one Sunday night we relaunched it, automated and improved. We added a search function and individual pages. We sent out a massive email blast to our entire database and had a lot of new sign-ups. I think that email blast acted as a defibrillator and got it back up and moving. Now, it takes care of itself entirely. Although, I police it heavily to make sure there aren't any unwelcome penises. (We've had a few of those.)

Any great stories from SPD?

Oh, several. We have had many people reunite. I couldn't believe that happened, actually. There were two women who hadn't seen each other in 10 years who managed to get back in touch. Their story made me so freaking happy.

There was also a woman who got really upset with me that we wouldn't allow her to show her vagina. I think "clit" was the word she preferred. She wrote me a few emails asking me to check out her site, that it wasn't that bad, etc. I'm all for a little vagina from time to time, but I didn't feel it was appropriate for SPD.

What's the secret of a good self-portrait?

For SPD, since the site's main idea is to help people discover new faces, I think the self-portrait needs to be engaging - especially since it's up against 11 other people per page. If you want to steal the eyes away from the guy posing with his cat, do something interesting.

I have clicked on images that have caused laughter, made me think, "What the ****?", or are just downright pleasing to they eye. Quality is a huge deal as well. If you upload a really small, low res image, chances are people aren't going to click on your link. It really is a competition, when it comes down to it. It's about selling yourself. That's the way I see it, at least.

I had one guy in the beginning report getting hundreds and hundreds of hits from us whereas others on that page weren't getting nearly as many. His image happened to be really engaging. It was black and white and shot with a wide-angle lens. I still remember it to this day. Plus, he's smoking a cigarette (I think it was a cigarette) and he looked badass. I was instantly sucked in.

As an art form, I think a good self-portrait is something that makes me feel as though I'm not supposed to be there, like I'm an intruder somehow, like the artist is letting me in on a secret. And by being exposed to their vulnerability, I feel guilty. That could be the Catholic girl in me, but for some reason I am immediately drawn in to work like that. In a way, they make me feel special, unique.

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