Millenial Artform

Photographer Kyle Thompson Elevates the ‘Selfie’ to Self-Portraiture

A 21-year-old Chicago native captures the emotional impact of solitude in his haunting, surreal self-portraits.

Kyle Thompson

A self-portrait is an age-old act that has transitioned from the hands of highly trained painters and photographers to the fingers of anyone with a camera. We just call them “selfies.”

The word was named this year’s Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year, debates have been raised regarding their credibility, and “selfies” are now beginning to appear in museum exhibitions.

Their presence has undeniably permeated our culture and we have all mastered the art of the “selfie.”

But, few of us will ever master the art of a self-portrait. Kyle Thompson, a 21-year-old Chicago native, has.

While his peers were using their camera phones to remind everyone on social media what they look like, Thompson was exploring forests and abandoned houses. It was through these explorations that he began capturing himself, just not in “selfie” mode. “I started taking self-portraits because I enjoyed going out alone,” Thompson told The Daily Beast. “It was easiest because I am always available and … I wanted some way to channel my emotions. I felt self-portraits were the most personal.”

But, these aren’t your typical self-portraits. Thompson uses elaborate drapery and ordinary objects to create mystical settings in isolated environments. He even occasionally sets himself on fire. The results are stunningly haunting.

Negative emotions tend to be what Thompson deals with most and he considers his process to be a form of self-therapy.

“Fire is beautiful, yet destructive,” Thompson stated in reference to a photo of him holding a bundle of sticks with his arms ablaze. “It deals with displacement; projecting anger or resentment. It shows the way we emotionally deteriorate, while holding together.”

The emotions prompted by the photographs are hard to ignore. The theatrical and, at times, surreal moments of solitude are seductive and powerful—drawing you in and leaving you wanting more.

Thompson was first noticed after posting some of his early photographs on Reddit, which garnered over four million views. Given the amount of praise he received, it is no surprise that supporters were quick to donate to his Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $20,000 for his first photo book project.

He described it as “a travel memoir … documenting the emotional strain and release of living in the unfamiliar.” Thompson spent six months traveling alone around the country relying solely on what he stumbled across—much like he was doing at home in Chicago, but with added risks.

Such as being stranded in Virginia after a car crash.

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However, that did not stop him from climbing water towers and crawling down manholes to find the best way to capture the emotions of solidarity. He even found and slept in a long forgotten town—what could turn out to be his most reverberating photographs. “I found a ghost town in South Dakota during a rainstorm,” Thompson described. “Cars [were] littering overgrown lawns, houses nearly collapsed. I found the house with the cleanest bed and slept there.”

This has become a theme in a new series called, “Ghost Town,” which will depict the emotions of lone subjects in their natural environments. It is just one of the upcoming projects that Thompson has in the works. He is currently working with galleries overseas on upcoming exhibitions and recently signed with French agency, Agence Vu.