Auckland photographer Solomon Mortimer's audacious self-portrait project

After the death of his grandfather, Solomon Mortimer began a series of self-portraits in which he wore the old man’s clothes as a way to process his grief – and explore an artistic trajectory.

When his grandfather died, he inherited his wardrobe. At 17, an age when most teens are practically snorting fast fashion, Solomon Mortimer instead chose to wear the hand-me-downs of a man two generations his senior in order to come to terms with his passing. He began to take pictures of himself in these outfits despite never before showing an interest in photography. Something about donning the old blue polyester tracksuit and documenting how he looked in it ignited a passion for both photography and the self-portrait that has endured to this day. 

Mortimer, now 25, has been immersed in photography for the past seven years. He’s made a habit of creating books and zines in small print runs to accompany exhibitions, many of them combining his signature self-portraiture with the delicate details of the everyday, images mainly captured on his faithful Mamiya RZ67 with its 110mm lens. He often collaborates with his partner, Zahra Killeen-Chance.

His current exhibition, Personal Personnel, showing at Anna Miles Gallery on Upper Queen Street, provides a snippet of Killeen-Chance in classic Mortimer style; in one image, titled ‘Descending Legs’, we see her long limbs captured within a pale-yellow shaft of light. Each pore and hair is clear; the image cuts off at the top of her thighs before anything else is revealed. It’s simple and just a little too close for comfort: the viewer is positioned at the level of her calves, and we see her in a way we usually never would. It’s images like this – combined with others that hone in on a male’s bare chest, a knee, and a close-up of a Barbie doll’s face – that add to Anna Miles’ interpretation that his work is fetishist. “It’s funny that from an ethical standpoint you arrive at something that’s kind of soft porn,” she says.

In contrast, Mortimer’s self-portraits show his humour. Aside from remembering his grandfather, the portraits presented here in this story offer an insight into adolescence. “The other influence on these works was a burgeoning exploration of my rapidly changing physicality and understanding of who I could be as a young man,” says Mortimer. Miles says the self-portraits are audacious, comparing them to American Cindy Sherman’s work. “They’re hilariously self-dramatising. I like the way he’s such a frank extrovert,” she says. And while they may look staged and egotistical, they’re often spontaneous. “In my practice I work very fast,” says Mortimer. “Both with other people and myself. All of the images here (except for ‘Donovan Pinkerton #1) exist as a single 120mm negative. One shot. So I am responding to subtle shifts between moments or a certain space or light.” 

Here, Mortimer discusses some of his photographs:

“Well, this was the result of my desires for pink hair. I’m in front of a ‘death wall’. And again it is a portrait that is more about a record of myself, for myself, than a conceptual gesture.”

“Goodness it was cold making this image. It was 7am in late August down in Mercer on a friend’s lawn. He had two weimaraners who seemed fitting company for such a moment.”

“Donovan Pinkerton was an alter ego who emerged from this combination of a tracksuit and sunglasses from the Mortimer estate. It was a personality that brought together a sense of confidence underpinned by a deep, uneasy weirdness. This is the first image ever taken of him, on a roof in Point Chevalier. It is the only image I have ever made on a Hassleblad [camera]– a friend had just purchased it and we wanted to test it out.”

“It was a rainy day in Petone and my partner at the time had this empty pool on her property, not far from the house. She had knitted me this sock and I wanted to do it justice.”