40-Wonderful Self Portraits

The inspiration started with a conversation:

I was sharing my work and photography journey with a highly successful photography teacher a few weeks before my 41st birthday. I said that if I died tomorrow, I would be happy with where my work has gone so far. He asked if I felt my work was complete, and I went on to share that photography has given me such incredible opportunities to connect with people and attracted some wonderful projects. I would say I feel fulfilled. And yet, I still want to grow and hone my skills. I want it to grow richer and continue to evolve.

The biggest struggle is making time to practice, play and explore my skills, to grow them further. That is how this project was born: it is an exploration of different lighting, styling and photography techniques while I also embrace and reflect on turning 41 - which inspires the name, 40-Wonderful!

Through July 31, 2024, I will be creating 41 self portraits to share. Stay tuned to watch this small corner of the internet, my virtual gallery grow with me. I'll be updating the page with the latest portrait on top, so scroll down to view the project timeline.

Black and White Photo of family hugging

40 Wonderful Self-Portrait 21 of 41

40 Wonderful Self-Portrait 21 of 41

My clients inspire me. This portrait, for example, was from a reference photo a client shared with me of a family group in a big hug. I just loved it!

As I have been working on this self-portrait project, I find myself thinking about how I'm part of a family, my own and the bigger extended family we share.

Our family is a huge part of who I am. My husband and children and cats are key to keeping me motivated and enjoying this life we live. While I did consider if it would be possible to include our two cats, it became too challenging to predict their availability! I'm just so grateful I could get 15 minutes with the teens and husband to humor me for this self-portrait. I love them all SO much, and I hope this communicates some of that.

Studio Portrait of Woman wearing glasses and black blouse with black backdrop

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40 Wonderful Self-Portrait 20 of 41

Last year gave me opportunities to explore more traditional and older styles of portraits! Partly from my clients wishing to celebrate their own projects like recreating a family portrait from the mid-1990's or a Grandmother's vintage coat. And, partly from going through some of my own family's portrait archives of my Great-Grandparents which showed me just how powerful personal portraits can be.

I discovered how much I appreciate and enjoy the older style of portraits and lighting. There is an artful way they make people look like they could step out of a different era! If it weren't for my contemporary glasses, I appear as if I was in the 1920's or 1950's.

For this self-portrait I used the classic 2-light setup one for the beauty style that makes eyes sparkle, and one for my hair to shine without getting lost on a dark background. I have to share that I really love how different lighting creates variety such as this self-portrait compared to the all natural light one I did previously. Both are beautiful, and both are me, but they have a different feel to them. That's the magic of photography!

40 Wonderful self-portrait 19 of 41

40 Wonderful self-portrait 19 of 41

When I first seriously started to study photography, it was with black and white film. I wanted to become a photojournalist. The idea of being a part of documenting history and possibly traveling was a big draw for me. To this day, I enjoy observing and watching people. Life had other plans, and I am grateful for that background.

For this portrait, I decided to play with those origins and set up the tripod in my studio. I looked out the window, watching a few people walk by, the bus going down the hill and people driving up the hill. If I could go back in time and tell my 20-year-old self where life would find me today, I'm not sure I could believe it. Having my own studio wasn't even a consideration for me back then. I just wanted to document stories as they unfolded around me, or on assignment to cover what's happening in the world.

To some extent, I still do that, but now I'm equipped with tools and skills to bring a layer of art into the photograph, as a portrait or documenting this one precious life. While we are becoming a culture where filters and retouching is the standard built into our phones and apps, I'm feeling the pull back to the magic of film photography, where light and composition do all the work to help others shine. So, this self-portrait was treated as such, no retouching, only some saturation adjustment for the black and white film look. It's all me, scars and white sparkle hairs showing, a tell that I'm able to age another year.

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 18 of 41

Don't forget who you are.

I've been thinking lately about my heritage. About being born and raised in Seattle, whose Grandparents both chose to raise their families in West Seattle to be specific. My Grandparents came to Seattle for different reasons, school and work being the big ones. On the one side, my Dad's side, there's a longer history here too. It's really cool to know where you come from in terms of family history.

The stories that brought my Great-Grandparents here to Washington state vary, but mostly it was for opportunity. As the city grows and changes and feels like we see more pains of density and gentrification, I think about them. And, our children's future in this city seems bright, but also not the same as it was for my parents, or even me. I am from here, and a mix of races that melt together. Who I am is a series of layers of life experiences and family cultures.

While I am not able to really show who I am in a portrait, I continue to explore ways to represent myself in this project. This portrait was inspired in a moment while looking out at Lake Washington a couple weeks ago. We were driving our older teenager and two friends to a volunteer event. It was a classic Seattle winter day with rain, gray skies and a soft light brought on by low clouds and areas of fog. As I looked out the window, a passenger in the car, I saw this dock out there, with the tree line, still water, and peek of neighboring city, Bellevue, as a serene landscape.

And to some, this portrait may not feel as dynamic or eye-catching as others, but for me, it holds these layers of meaning. It feels so much like home.

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 17 of 41

This week I was standing with my two teens, and the older teen's girlfriend outside a coffeeshop. We were talking and unexpectedly, the older teen says, "Hey, Mom, I see more of those white hairs popping up top of your head."

His girlfriend replied, "Why're you throwing shade, bro?"

I laughed as the older teen backtracked a bit with, "I think it's cool, you know, because it reminds me of your Mom."

It's true. My mom's hair went all white with age. I'm not sure when it started, but it felt a bit sudden as she stopped coloring it and let it all come in full view.

I didn't expect to get white hair, because most folks I know with dark hair like mine get gray hair with some sprinkles of white. But, I've always admired the white hairs of wisdom and age. I call these my sparkles. More and more spring up every day. It's changing not only the color of my hair but also the texture.

For this self-portrait, I also chose to do no retouching. I'm working to appreciate and celebrate all these signs of aging. I truly believe that to age is a gift.

I was also inspired earlier this week by my friend Jason who shared his own personal daily self-portrait project from years ago. As I browsed through that amazing archive of a year in his life, one of his close-ups like this struck a cord with my creative mind. While my portrait is not original, it's still so fun to play and explore different styles.

And that's just what this project is all about: making space to create and stretch my skills!

Portrait of Holli Margell sitting facing the camera with a sleeveless gray shirt showing arms tattoos

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 16 of 41

I don't have any tattoos or piercings. Being a resident of Seattle and over 40 years old, it feels like an unusual fun fact about myself. Most people I know, no matter their gender have at least one or both of these. As I age, I consider these acts of individual adornment, but the longer I wait, the more I think being "natural" makes me unique.

However, when our younger teen began expanding their art in more visible places like the wall of my studio, someone mentioned how cool it would be as a tattoo. So, I've been thinking about this ever since. Her ink drawing art with organic shapes reminds me a lot of my own Mother's art too. I'm now considering a tattoo using both of their art.

For this self-portrait, I bought our teen liquid tattoo eyeliner that lasts up to 36 hours. They created this one of a kind work of art on my arm in about an hour, and then I did these portraits. It was fun, and a low-cost way for me to audition the idea of getting a permanent version.

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 15 of 41

Yesterday was the 7th anniversary of my Mom's death. She died about 2 weeks shy of her 58th's birthday.

While I was planning today's portrait for this project, I had a few ideas from exploring the layers of grief we hold to focusing on the signs of aging myself with the white wild hairs growing into my hair. Instead, what I discovered was that movement and getting playful fit better. You see, when I reflected on all the lessons my Mom gave me, even in her death, it was her sense of playful creativity that really stands out. She used to tell me life was full of so much hardness, it was important to show the beauty and the joy it can hold.

So as simple as it is, this portrait, taken after exploring 3 different looks, fits best. Straight forward black and white really holds a special place in my heart too with that sense of timelessness, and a film feel. If I were to do this for a client project, I probably would have removed the side zipper pull and one stray hair on the left side of my head, maybe even brightening my teeth. Instead, this portrait is treated more like film, adjusted to black and white with nothing retouched. I'm discovering myself more and more drawn to this style, which is where I started in film photography. In the ever-changing creative landscape with AI portraits populating the world, I want to do more totally authentic portraits celebrating people as they are.

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 14 of 41

Hello 2024! It seemed the perfect time to do a self-portrait focused on an updated headshot portrait. I've been growing my hair out now for the past six months and it is now longer than it's been in several years.

This year, I'm fully embracing the fact that I'm growing older, new white hairs emerging everyday, my skin is changing and with that my smile too. I've been reminded more and more by my clients that it's a challenge to embrace these physical changes in a culture that celebrates youthfulness. And yet, I now just how much of a privilege it is to be able to age. Every year is a gift, as cheesy as it sounds.

When my Mom died in January of 2017, it was sudden and the grief really shook me to my core. While the years have eased the intensity of grief, they have also unfolded lessons about life. Watching our kids grow into young adults adds an entire other level to these lessons. The ways I see sparks of my Mom's life and personality emerge through them and even in myself bring comfort and wonder. I'm grateful for this life and each year, no matter how they change me.

Woman dancing in gray dress with a dark blue backdrop in vibrant color.

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 13 of 41

This time of year where we enter the holidays between the Solstice, Christmas and New Years feels like a flurry! I've had more social events to attend in one week than I have in years. So much to celebrate, and so the days feel full, stuffed, brimming. I find myself wishing it was slower, but also enjoying the energy and excitement. It almost feels like a dance, between movement and stillness.

That's what inspired this self-portrait! I was working with a slow shutter speed to get the movement, and took almost 200 photos to create this one. You see, at first I had too fast of a shutter speed and everything was in focus, then it was too slow and began to look like I had four legs or two faces, so I finally got it just right. Some movement, but no doubles on my legs or face. Then for the editing and retouching, I played a bit more with color. The original background and the dress are a medium gray. I decided something more vibrant and stage or film like was the look and feel I wanted. Blue felt more aligned with this part of the year and dancing too.

As we enter 2024, I hope we can find peace in and joy in the moments!

40 Wonderful self-portrait 12 of 41

40 Wonderful self-portrait 12 of 41

Going through my own family photos to organize them this fall, I was inspired by the old Glamour portraits of my Mom, and also those of older relatives. I'm thinking particularly of the really beautiful black and white portraits of older relatives. This portrait strives to embody the fun and festive feel those portray.

For my own glamour self-portrait, I found all of these wardrobe pieces in my own closet - they are all used. The earrings I got from my Mom, the fur coat is from a favorite vintage clothing seller on Etsy who happens to have had a yard sale in my neighborhood last spring! The dress is one I found for the Tree Woman Project back in 2014 at the local thrift store.

The Lighting I used was classic beauty style, and the retouching I did was to try and emulate older film from the Kodak variety. I was striving for a cinema feel in the tones of the 50's Hollywood era. Hopefully it inspires the fun feel I got when looking through my own family photos.

Retro Color self portrait with composite of three expressions on black background

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40 Wonderful self-portrait 11 of 41

This portrait was created with inspiration from both grief and a popular singer and songwriter. When I saw a creative portrait of the music artist, Billie Eilish by Cho Gi-Seok, it resonated with me both for it's throw back theme of those studio portraits that were popular in the mid-70's-early 90's, and for it's more moody feel. I actually have a portrait with this technique on film done of me and my Dad when I was about 12 years old - his and my portrait being composited together before the magic of Photoshop.

For this self-portrait, I embraced the vintage feel even more by wearing a dress discovered at a thrift store a couple years ago, and a necklace I bought at a garage sale. The necklace adds a little fun color and texture for an otherwise serious feeling.

With this year full of light and also darkness on a global scale, I feel like there's a layer of grief that is thicker than before. Perhaps it's because of all the loved ones I miss personally, or the magnitude at which I can know the suffering around the world or the dark days of December here in Seattle, but it felt time for a more solemn and reflective self-portrait. I find comfort in creating. May you find peace and comfort too.

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40-Wonderful, Self-Portrait 10

My Mom was one of my first art teachers, and supporters of my love for photography. She let me use her camera when I was little to start exploring, and would then naturally become a big supporter when I decided to launch my photography business.

She was also one of my Tree Women Project models - she's wearing this exact same sweater and floral crown in her portrait. And, I would later discover this portrait was such a favorite that my siblings and I chose it for her memorial and obituary portrait.

When she died in January 2017, we were with her, and felt our world turned upside-down. She was gone too soon after a breast cancer diagnosis just a month earlier. Sadly, it was very progressive, stage 4 and had metastasized to several places.

After she was gone, and we were going through the process of looking through her things and deciding who wanted what, I could not find this green sweater. It was something I had purchased for her as a gift in Port Angeles. She loved it and it was often her signature layer. It became a mystery! Once I thought I had found it on a friend at who wore something similar to an event - she had found it at a thrift store. It wasn't the one, with different collar and buttons.

A few years went by and my Step-Dad found it in a back cupboard part of their closet! Such a treasure for me to have it now, even if it isn't my style. I really appreciate having this physical part of her life.

It was only a matter of time for me to use Mom's sweater in one of these portraits. I was inspired when I setup a scene to photograph a friend's artwork for a show, and discovered I loved the soft, natural feel of light it produced. And then I even found a fallen branch laden with lichen like the ones she was photographed in front of back in November 2014. Yes, I took them and hung one from the wall of the studio, and used another in a foreground layer to photograph myself through for a touch of added texture.

My 10th 40-Wonderful self-portrait is not and exact replica of Mom's Tree Woman portrait, but it is just right in a unique way to honor her.

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40-Wonderful, Self-Portrait 9

"Time flies when you're having fun!" is a saying I've heard all my life.

Well, it honestly isn't always fun, but time sure does fly when you're busy! That past month has been just that - full of good and not so good busy, and I'm grateful for it all. This portrait was inspired by a client who wished to be photographed in the same format as one created in the early 1990's of him with his Mom and Sister! Of course, I had just the backdrop. It was SO MUCH fun to recreate the lighting set up and even their poses.

I always like to do light testing to have everything as close to ready when a client arrives. This was a perfect opportunity to test the light and create a self-portrait for my 40-Wonderful portrait series. Plus, I'm of an age where I remember how special and cool it was go to into a studio for portraits and then wait anxiously to see the proofs a week or more later. I chose a denim shirt to wear, because that's what fits my memory of a cool shirt of the time (though I did consider a white tee-shirt with a flannel layer as an option too).

This also feels very much like it could be in my High School Yearbook. But, I wasn't as confident then, and I certainly didn't like any of those photos at the time. It's been a wonderful opportunity to reflect on who I am now, and how much I've learned so far. This 40-Wonderful me is so much more comfortable in my own skin, and no longer as self-conscious. Honestly, I do still find myself not totally happy all the time with my appearance, but now I know more deeply that who I am is more than a photograph.

40-Wonderful self-portrait 8 of 41

40-Wonderful, Self-Portrait 8

What does running your own business look like? This was the question I was striving to answer with this portrait. As a solo-business owner, I do all the things. Clean the studio, book the clients, photograph, edit, deliver, social media posts, marketing flow, pay taxes, all the tasks.

When I thought of what would symbolize those things, the picture got too busy, so instead, I chose a few key tools: vacuum cleaner, laptop, desk and camera. I am grateful for these tools, and those I've learned to use that you cannot visibly see. They all empower me to use my favorite tool, which is using my camera to photograph beauty in people and places around us.

40-Wonderful self-portrait 7 of 41

40-Wonderful, self-portrait 7:

My name is Holli Margell, daughter of Keitheen Nichols, Granddaughter of Keith Nichols, Great-Granddaughter of Levi (Lee) Nichols, all of us members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. I’m grateful I can trace our Native American family lineage back a couple more generations too.

While I am also a mix of Norwegian and Croatian (plus a few other European countries), I have more of a tie into this heritage with an active tribe. If I were to lean into my Norwegian or Croatian background, I no longer have elders in my family who carry any traditions of those cultures. I could go a museum or attend a cultural festival in Seattle, but it's not quite the same as meeting and seeing the culture practiced like I can when I attend the Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma Pow-wow.

My Grandfather died when I was 13, and he didn't really have much in the way of traditions to pass onto us, only his stories. His family had moved before he was born away from the tribal land and eventually landed in Eastern Washington. He grew up in a time when being an Indian Family meant you'd literally be unfriended on the playground. His brother, Theodore also shared his stories. He was always eager to share what he knew of our family tree. I am grateful we have at least a place to visit, and a tribe that is prioritizing our cultural preservation.

For this self-portrait, I used natural light, and editing tools in order to create a more vintage black and white finish. I wore a shawl purchased at the Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma Pow-wow created from a Cherokee Grandma. In color it reminded me of our tribal flag: light blue and red.

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40 Wonderful, self-portrait 6:

The new studio mural is complete! We learned many things through this process. I already knew our daughter was an artist, and to see her bring her art to a much larger space than her usual sketch books was so beautiful.

She drew this design in under an hour, the art flowing from her heart. She found some frustration with painting at this scale, because it didn't translate the desire to have fine line edges easily. We (her Dad and I), thought it looked amazing as she progressed. Then, I offered to lend my hands to painting the edges and discovered I not only enjoyed the process but have the dexterity and strength to do so. And, I'm thrilled with her art, to have her mural design up on the studio walls is so incredibly wonderful!

If only my Mom was here to see it. As an artist who painted many murals, signs, and her own works on canvass, she would be so overjoyed to see her granddaughter's work come to life. It's such a privilege to have this space and place for Iris' mural. It's a totally unique backdrop where I'm excited to create portraits. Seemed only fitting to include this in my 40-Wonderful Self Portrait series. This one has had no retouching done to it, simply out of the camera with studio lighting. When I do other portraits in the future, I will be removing the electrical outlet for sure. And, I'm already envisioning the fun I'll have with various chairs for posing clients in front of it.

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40 Wonderful, self-portrait 5:

Creativity brings chaos. This something I've seen all my life, but it really became clear to me this season.

Making space in the studio for my daughter to create a mural found me moving everything to one side of the space. This feels and looks chaotic but it provides space for creativity. That inspired this 5th portrait. Natural light from the windows was just lovely yesterday evening!

As this project moves forward, I keep wondering if I will run out of ideas for self portraits, but like this one, I am finding inspiration from every day life. And, I'm also discovering that a meaningful portrait can be created with a little or a lot of preparation. They all have their meaningfulness, no matter how much time was put into them. This one has very little editing. The lighting was simple. My outfit was what I wore that day. It documents the stage of owning a studio. A milestone in my business that I so enjoy!

And, it's funny how being a solo-business owner I don't know how much to celebrate or talk about it. Unlike others with careers that have clearly defined achievement levels like getting promoted to a Manager or Director, this is not something I can update on LinkedIn or a setting for social media status. For me this is a gentler, more personally fulfilling step in my business.

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40 Wonderful, self-portrait 4:

This morning I was planning a different portrait style, but my daughter told me she loved my hair! I had an early morning business meeting, and that mean I only had enough time to partially dry my hair after washing it. This meant is dried mostly naturally which enables my wilder hairs to curl and wave about. There is no controlling it at this point in the day. So, I thought this would be a perfect look to practice a backlight setup from the Felix Kunze Lighting Workshop I took last month.

The light set up is not simply a back light, it is more dynamic in that it really looks more like natural light. The key is in bouncing the strobe lighting back toward the person sitting for a portrait for a softer look. I love it! I did struggle wearing my glasses as it reflected the light coming off the reflective surface and I was unable to fix it; so I went without them.

The black and white looks felt right for this portrait because it add a touch of artfulness, and it feels right for my wilder hair. Someday, I may finally sort out how to achieve this with glasses!

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40-Wonderful, self-portrait 3:

I captured this portrait in the evening with a faint natural filter through the wildfire smoke in my Mother-In-Law's garden.

Sunflowers have long been among my favorite summer flowers. There has been a sweet theme this summer for sunflowers in my life. While I am not growing them in my garden this year, I have been delighted to see them in others' gardens and even visited a sunflower field recently for our family portraits by another photographer!

While I do not enjoy the fact that summers now seem to usher in wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, I am fascinated by the orange glowing filter it brings. In this evening light for my self portrait it is softer than during the middle of the day when the sun is directly shining through it.

I really enjoyed doing this natural light style of portrait as it goes back to my first years as a natural light photographer, my first style of work. The simplicity is sweet. And to further honor that, this has minimal editing too. My skin texture and hair sparkles (wild wise, white hairs) really shine.

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40-Wonderful, self-portrait 2:

For this portrait, I used a backlight technique learned during an in person lighting workshop I took in NYC last month! And, I chose to celebrate my childhood with some of the sports my Dad taught me (2 of many): roller skating and golf✨

While I do not have time to enjoy these very often, I’m grateful to have learned, and acknowledge my genetic inheritance of balance and coordination. When I was thinking about this, I realized one of the best things I learned from my Dad teaching me so many different sports was that I can learn anything if I try and then practice, practice, practice. This self-portrait project is a reflection of this too - I'm practicing some of the new lighting skills I have learned.

And, as a funny side-note about this particular portrait, it was a little bit challenging because my remote and in-camera timer were not working properly! I only had 30 minutes in my studio to complete this portrait on a very busy week (last week). So, I could not solve the remote issue, which means the Putter in my hand pointing at the camera was the only pose I could use since I needed to press the remote that direction which was also in my hand holding the club.

40 Wonderful self-portrait 1 of 41

40-Wonderful, self-portrait 1:

This was inspired in part by the Greta Gerwig Barbie movie. You see, I did have a few Barbies growing up, but I didn't find them key in my growth as a young woman in the 80's - they were fun, but my real enjoyment was found in art and craft projects, the earliest ones involved a lot of paper, crayons, colored pencils and tape or glue.

While reflecting on this, and the super women or heroes of the time, I chose to use colored backdrop paper rolled into columns with the help of my 15-year-old daughter. Primary colors seemed fitting since I remember distinctly being taught by my Mother about color theory and her showing my brother and I how color transformed using acrylic paint and mixing them together.

My Mother, and all those creative people in my life growing up were my real heroes. And, I chose the Super Woman stance for this first portrait in the project, because I know I can choose to be the hero of my own story.