A Photographer’s Collection of Celebrity Self-Portraits

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Helena Bonham CarterCourtesy of Benjamin McMahon

Not Myself is a series of self-portraits orchestrated by London-based photographer Benjamin McMahon, who asks his subjects to step behind the camera themselves

London-based photographer Benjamin McMahon is often commissioned to take portraits of high-profile people; past subjects range from actors, musicians and fashion designers to politicians, chefs and poets – people like Gillian Anderson, Judi Dench, Stephen Jones, Gilbert & George and Simone Rocha. “I might get an hour, or half an hour, or ten minutes with somebody to make a picture, and you’re kind of at the mercy of how they feel that day,” he explains. “If you turn up and they’re in a great mood and open and receptive to being photographed you might get something really special.” It’s normally “making a portrait and that’s the end of it”, but a few years ago McMahon started asking his subjects to step behind the camera and take a photograph of themselves. “I can’t really remember why I thought that was a good idea because I hate selfies, you don’t really find me taking them,” he says, and now he’s amassed a collection of these self-portraits and made them into a series entitled Not Myself.

Each self-portrait has been taken in a mirror, using one of McMahon’s cameras. “It’s a digital Leica range-finder, so the focus is manual all the aperture and shutter speed is manual,” he says. Once McMahon has explained the self-portrait project – “I say to try to think of it more as a self-portrait, than as a selfie: something that’s less throw-away, that might be a bit more lasting,” he says – and if his subject says yes, he’ll coach them through how to use the camera and then leave them to it. The process is always collaborative: “we find a spot together, we find a pose together in a mirror somewhere and do a couple of test shots.” 

The resulting set of black and white portraits is an eclectic, beautiful collection of selfies – and much more elevated than the average iPhone shot. McMahon has stories for each subject, and recounts with delight how Alan Rickman took to the idea immediately, saying “‘I know what you want’ in that voice”, or how Judi Dench captured herself after sitting down with McMahon for a bottle of champagne because it was his birthday. “My work is always varied, and it’s really exciting, you get to meet lots of really exciting people,” he says.

“Helena Bonham Carter was amazing too. I said to her, ‘think of it more like Frida Kahlo than Kim Kardashian’, and she got her phone out and showed me loads of pictures of her dressed up as Frida Kahlo. She spent a lot of time on it, a good 20 minutes. We were going through the pictures making sure she was happy with how she looked and she changed things over quite a lot. There’s been a couple of pretty special ones.”

The series has just gone on show in an exhibition at Elephant West. For the show, McMahon worked with set designer Ciaran Linden Beale on a room filled with mirrors. “It’s a white gallery room covered in various weird mirrors,” he says. “Some weird ones, like old train mirrors, there’s a load of like fish put together and that’s a mirror somehow. Hopefully people will kind of interact with it a bit, and have a little bit of fun, and make their own versions.” In the meantime, the project is ongoing – one of the pictures in the exhibition was taken just a few weeks ago. “It was a little bit of a challenge to myself,” McMahon says, “and now I’ve said a few times that they’re my favourite pictures I’ve taken, and I haven’t really taken any of them.”

Benjamin McMahon: Not Myself is at Elephant West, London, until November 17, 2019.