The Entrancing and Surreal Self-Portraiture of Kyle Thompson


There are selfies, and then there are self-portraits. Make no mistake, these are two very different things, in the same way that a photograph differentiates itself from a snapshot. So while the word ‘selfie’ might be in the midst of experiencing its 15 minutes of fame, it would be an injustice to call photographer Kyle Thompson‘s gripping self-portraits ‘selfies.’

Thompson, if you can believe it, is 21-years old and only got into photography at age nineteen. Plagued by anxiety his entire life, photography has become a sort of therapy, a way for him to express himself to the world… and the world seems to enjoy listening.

We’ve actually featured his work once before, but the majority of his photography actually doesn’t feature other people. The brunt of Thompson’s work consists of beautiful, striking and surreal self-portraits in which Thompson is bending reality to his will.

“I started taking self-portraits because I enjoyed going out alone,” Thompson recently 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.”

His work is often set in abandoned houses or deep inside forests where he creates scenes of solitude that, on occasion, require that he set himself on fire. Here’s a look at some of our favorite shots from his portfolio:













We are certainly not the first to take notice of Thompson’s self-portrait work. When he posted it to Reddit last year, he earned himself over 3,000 upvotes and almost 2,000 comments; and his Kickstarter to raise money for a road-trip/photo book quickly raised more than twice its intended goal.

If you’d like to see more of his work, head over to his website or follow him on Flickr, Facebook or Tumblr by following the corresponding links.

(via Resource Magazine)

Image credits: Photographs by Kyle Thompson and used with permission.

  • Stan

    I know I’m going to get downvoted for this but… Lately I’ve seen a lot of posts about “surreal photography” which actually depicts magical realism.
    These posts all have the following in common: they are self-portraits, cropped in a square aspect ratio, and center-weighted. More often than not, the scene is self-indulgent and does not tell a story at all. It feels like these photo projects are highly narcissistic, almost as if they’ve been created for someone’s Facebook or Instagram feed.
    This is seriously getting old.

  • chris

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. As soon as I saw this my first thoughts were “yet another narcissist” ugh.

  • Omar Salgado

    I may agree with you. I find these photos using symbols, which not all photographers use (most do “direct vision”), and that’s why I kind of like them. But what you point out, the narcissistic approach, besides the pretension recalling the past through the simulation of film (the colour hues), disgusts me too.

    I don’t know, maybe if we see all of the images as a whole, there’s a symbolised personal story.

  • Joshua Tobias George Barrett

    I know what you mean, however Kyle is certainly one of the more prominent members of this recent movement, if not one of the first young people to do this sort of thing. I may be wrong but he may be one of the more original members of this style who other people have started to copy.

    As for the self obsession, not everyone has access to professional models or willing subjects – especially when you’re young, don’t have much money or are an amateur. So that could be seen as a bit of an ignorant comment; if you want to shoot people but don’t have anyone to shoot that only leaves yourself.

    Finding a willing model can be even more difficult when you’re doing these, occasionally more complicated composite images as it not only requires the model’s extended patience but also a fairly good understanding of the process to allow them to work better towards your needs.

    Sam Taylor Wood did a similar series of self portraits.

    As for your ‘Surrealism/Magical Realism’ remark. I personally see strong relations between some of these pieces and the paintings of RenĂ© Magritte, is he wrongly identified as a surrealist in that case? To me it just seems as if you are nit-picking.

  • Adam Cross

    the work he does shooting other people is much better than his self portraits, to be honest, I’ve never found his self portraits to be all that inspired or refreshing in anyway. Like Stan says, there are so many people doing identical stuff it’s hard to be impressed by it all.

  • David Vaughn

    I do agree with Stan. While the photos themselves are nice to look at, the photosphere is really becoming over-saturated with these sorts of photos. I mean, it’s saturated with pretty much every type of photography, but this photography seems to be what gets the most attention consistently.

    Brooke Shaden is a great digital artist, but do we really need to feature 10 Brooke Shadens a year. There are other amazing photographers in different areas that are creating images that are visually interesting and actually coherent.

    And I’ve also noticed that the concepts in these photos are so blatantly recycled. I mean, random pages blowing around? That’s like the selective color of “surreal” photographers. They have to do it at least once.

    It’s no fun anymore.

    EDIT: I give a pass to the photographer who creates surreal scenes in her apartment without the use of Photoshop. That girl is just…amazing.

  • David Vaughn

    Although photographers don’t always have access to professional models/stylists and such, I do have one question.

    Since these surrealist photographers say they’re just expressing their own emotions and personality…Why do most of them look the same?

    Are they truly trying to portray their emotions, or do they know that this type of photography is relatively easy to coordinate and will get lots of likes on FB/IG/The Internets In General.

  • bob cooley

    You can thank/blame Cindy Sherman…

    Though I would argue that these have better technique…

  • unumbskull

    these are boring and corny

  • John

    Don’t forget… You MUST crush the blacks in your photo to +50 or it’s not “cool.”

  • tarena1991

    im so done with this crap

  • Joel Morillo

    PetaPixel members talking trash about someone else’s work? oh! there’s a shocker.

  • Coop

    Sweet, I’ve been checking this guys stuff out all week and other surrealist photographers. Was wishing Peta had more creative articles like this!

  • Coop

    I can’t say I agree. They say a pictures worth a thousand words and just because you don’t know the words doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean something to someone. I think it works when people can relate to it. Sometimes it’s just a mystery.

    I really don’t like the narcissism comment. As someone with anxiety, it becomes hard to go out and even see people or interact, asking someone to model and having them share an artistic vision and show emotion is even more sensitive. At times you feel like you’re in a prison, where things in your mind don’t make sense, and you think and think of ways to create something out of nothing. You need a person as the subject but you have no one. He covers his face often so anyone can identify with the subject, and people go and mistake this for narcissism.

    I don’t think highly of myself at all but when I use myself in photos I’m also called a narcissist. Developing and showing any confidence is just labelled as narcissism, and I’m far from someone who’s just snapping selfies daily.

    You can say it get olds, but look deeper. I could say the same about landscapes. Browsing on 500px anything beautiful can become very dull. You have to look deeper I guess. If you don’t relate it just isn’t for you.

  • Coop

    I think people are just put off by over saturation from the 365 project.

  • Coop

    Wow, after reading your posts, I can’t believe you guys…

  • Jared Skye

    Remember you’re not allowed to have an opinion on something unless you like it.

  • David Vaughn

    But we don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish. He might being trying to say “I’m bearing my soul here, guys.” But for some of us, it just says “look at me, look at me. I appear young and vulnerable…Follow my Twitter!” or whatever.

    And we don’t ever have to go on 500px to find these photographers, because they keep being shoved in our face by every photography website that says “wow, such unique, so striking, wow wow surreal.” We can’t escape the image of the wounded youth naked in the woods, or the book pages flying everywhere, and we keep being told that they’re totally amazing, when they’re exactly the same as the photographer last week.

    If they are truly trying to be individuals, then why, when given ultimate creative freedom (by using ourselves as models and the powers of Photoshop) do they create very similar images time and time again from the concept to the processing and the crop?

  • greenarcher02

    There are only so much emotions and so much symbolism to express them, you know. And very very few can actually create something unique out of them.

  • greenarcher02

    And yours isn’t. Just saying.

  • greenarcher02

    I don’t get why you call that pretentious. And why you find that PP technique ‘disgusting’. If you actually read, he started with self-portraits but started branching out to taking photos of other people. Mostly of friends. In the same style.

  • greenarcher02

    Oh that Korean girl who makes sets for months…. She’s truly AMAZING.

  • greenarcher02

    Hm… Calling something “disgusting”, “pretentious”, “narcissistic” is hardly an opinion.

  • Coop

    I just take deep offence in some words, like narcissist. Themes of the month for me have been things like ignorance and being labelled or misunderstood. I know what it’s like to not want to be around people, he’s got like nothing to use as a conduit of expression but his own body and like I said he hides his face to be anybody. It hits me personally because right now because I find myself in a similar situation as other other photographers dealing with these problems. I don’t even want to photography myself that much, like I’ve seen this guy comment on his own stuff, he gets sick of it. Over the course of just last night alone I went from planning on photo manipulating myself to rummaging in the basement for clay to build friggen dolls to photograph.

    I really encourage this stuff being shared. Maybe it gets overlooked. I want to just spam it forever. It’s a success story, it makes me feel like for once I can do something.

    I think if you look at these people along side one another then yes it could get dull, but I don’t think that’s fair, you have to tell yourself this is an individual and his ideas and work. I can’t say that all these artists don’t copy eachother but I can see his work flow and quality and tell that he is genuine. I feel like if artists didn’t do things just because someone else already did them then nothing would ever get created. I had an idea to buy some red yarn soon for a photo idea, and I’ve stumbled into photos where it was already implemented. Does this mean I can’t use it and have to throw away my idea? No. I’m being honest with myself and if people don’t like that they can just ignore my work I guess. Maybe these people are genuinely creating things on their own, and just by coincidence or interests they are fitting into the same genre.

  • gochugogi

    Or maybe he just has a really tiny model budget! I find many of the images, especially the faceless “conceptional” ones, to be hilarious. I suspect he was indulging in a wee bit of tongue-in-cheek humor and enjoying a satirical poke at the art world. He’s having fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

  • Stan

    Sorry but, mine isn’t what?

  • Stan

    Can you please let me know her name and/or website?

  • Becca Gulliver

    I liked the balloon one and one with the flour wings, the rest of the images not so much. However, I do appreciate the effort that is put into images like this.

  • greenarcher02

    Her name is Jeeyoung Lee. I can’t find if she has a website but you might find more luck with google. She has a similar name with a golfer so try adding ‘artist’ as a keyword or something.

  • greenarcher02

    And your work isn’t what you describe? Sorry it was supposed to be a question rather than a statement.
    I’d wager you’ve dabbled in the same narcissistic kind of thing, but expressed differently. Don’t we all?

  • David Vaughn

    I understand that there are only so many recognizable emotions (before they get too specific and vague), but who said there’s only so much symbolism?

    What does being naked and obscured in the woods symbolize? Innocence lost? That concept has been done to death in a 100+ ways that don’t involve such trendy concepts.

    What I’d love to see is a “surreal” photographer who is not thin, white, and young take on the same emotions/thoughts that these photographers are.

  • Christian DeBaun

    I’ll be the sole supporter here, and leave the weapons grade hate to to the professionals.

    I’ve seen these photos before (and yes, they have been widely circulated), but it’s always a pleasure to see them again.

    What I respect here is the tremendous amount of prep work and sweat equity that must have gone into these shots.

    1) Digging a 3 foot deep hole (roots, rocks) and clearing the dirt out of the shot is back breaking – and not something you do in 10 minutes. That took work.

    2) 20 balloons in a river – that drift away, or pop, or have to be repositioned. I’m thinking that’s some cold, wet, and possibly frustrating work.

    3) Hanging and positioning all of that cloth just the right way? I’m thinking that’s a few hours right there.

    Again, so much hate for this man’s work (and no, you don’t have to like it), but the amount of effort expended to make these is exceptional. Can you say the same thing about your own photography?

  • Will Mederski

    adolescence and the internet.
    crowd-funded vacations.
    and photoshop.

  • John

    Couldn’t agree with you more. The photographer has found success doing something he loves. He’s worked hard to create something and regardless of the originality, meaning etc., clearly plenty of people like what he’s doing. This makes all the negative comments here come off like sour grapes from a bunch of old cynics who can’t find similar success so all they have left is resentment and negativity.

  • hipster stomper

    I’m done with hipster wankers wearing bracers but what are you gonna do!?!

  • Jun

    Its all photoshop. Now that you know its all digital imagery, are you still impressed?

  • Omar Salgado

    Good to know that.

    It could be pretentious because of the fashion it is presented.

    That post-processing technique is disgusting because of a wasted aesthetics of our recent years. Indeed, whites are greenish, whites are reddish, whites are greyish. That is so unpleasant because it reminds me of Instagram. Besides, dynamic range is uncompressed, leading to washed-out tones in all the images, making me believe it is his “style” (or just following the trend of the acceptable, the trend that everyone follows and imitates, so devaluing his work in this aspect). Whites should not be clipped, but that’s not the case with blacks, that if, inverserly, blocked, are still graceful and elegant, adding contrast and a photographic resemblance.

    But besides the unpleasant aesthetics and having the people talking about the self-indulgent approach and all this kind of stuff getting old, I like the symbols in those images. That’s what grabs my attention and I think that’s why the images are worth. Can you see them?

  • Matias Gonua

    I agree, that doesn’t mean that the pictures are rubbish of course, I like the aesthetics, I’m just not fascinated by them. Also, this is a compilation made by the post author that might not reflect the photographer’s full ouvre.

  • Jared Skye

    I’ll need a source for that, friend. Is it not an opinion to you because you think they’re all being meanie-pantses? Since when does opinion = nice and friendly?

  • greenarcher02

    Didn’t that style predate instagram though? Although I use instagram, I never followed the filters’ styling in my normal photography. But eventually… it became similar to this one, but less extreme.

    And I don’t think anyone should ever say “should do this” “should do that” in photography. Sorry.

  • John

    Is that high horse you’re on also photoshopped?

  • greenarcher02

    Because they’re already generalizations based on opinions.

  • Coop

    Also to everyone calling this guy a narcissist: What would you photograph/create if you were the only person on earth and no one would ever seen your product? Every artist wants attention to some degree. People aren’t just doing this crap for themselves saying “Oh, well I guess I’ll share this online.”

  • Coop


  • Christian DeBaun

    All Photoshop? So no camera was involved at all? Then I’m even more impressed actually!

  • kyle

    Enough with this unoriginal tumblr garbage.

  • Omar Salgado

    Well, if you can’t argument technically, you fall in that sort of “should do this”, “should do that” that you are against, don’t you?


  • greenarcher02

    What? “If you can’t argument technically”… What??

    I meant that it isn’t right to dictate what “should” be done to whites, blacks, colors, and all that stuff. Photography is an art. And what the artist wants shouldn’t be subjected to your rules of what ‘should’ be done. It’s only unpleasant to you because it reminds you of instagram. Which is trivial and… dumb. Sorry.

  • Omar Salgado

    Excuse me for my bad English, I speak Spanish most of the time.

    What you are talking about is post-art, not art. Art has its rules and they must be broken gradually, progressively, without notice. I mean, art bases it’s own progress on the disruption of what already exist as art, and that disruptions takes what already has been created and creates new ways of representing a non-tangible reality. Art is not anarchic.

    Photography is not “an” “art”. That only lets me guess you don’t have any idea what art is. I asked you if you could see the symbols in the photos that are being discussed, and I don’t have an answer from your part yet.

    Photography is a way of representing with its “own” rules (borrowed from a pictorial history the most). If you knew art, you would know that what destroys it is the re-production from and original source, the authentic workart. Since photography is a technical way of reproducing, it could (and indeed does) lead to re-producing ad infinitum; you would know what is destroyed is the symbol and the dissemination, fragmentally, of the significance, thus, the symbol is destroyed because it is taken out of context, and what is left is the signifier. I assume you know what a sign is and what it is composed of.

    Yes, the images in question remind me of Instagram, but it is not just that they do that, it is, in a higher level, the corruption of asthetics just for the sake of aesthetics. Nowadays everything is considered “art” when in reality we just have aesthetics, we just have the surface; we have devoided the meaning by having denied the symbol.

    Really, you are part of that triviality you say I’m part of. And if you don’t want to be considered dumb, why do not you give your solid arguments, I mean, there is enough space for you to write them down.


  • greenarcher02

    Because you talk too much. Turns out you really are close-minded.

    YES, of course I see the symbols. AND YES I consider the colors part of them. Whether I agree with them or not is not the point. And we could probably agree that most of them aren’t expressed properly, and all of them are personal to the point that anyone outside cannot interpret them. I believe that’s bad practice.

    Photography IS an art. What is art to you, then?

    Art are creations of people. Almost every art, especially visual arts, relies on deconstructing something natural and constructing something else from it. Putting a color cast is not always for the sake of aesthetics. Certain colors have certain moods. And you’d do well to utilize them.

    Are you part of the snobs who think photos should look the same as when they were shot? I certainly hope not.