Face. Boobs. Pout. SHOOT

Vermeer selfie

Girl with a Pearl Earring Selfie – Mitchel Grafton(?)

Vanity is by no means something new. Whilst we dismiss the youth of today as being the image-obsessed ‘selfie’ generation, those of us well beyond our teens would have been no different with the same opportunity, exploring our own faces from every angle, pouting and preening whilst clicking and editing away to present the world with the photoshopped image of as-good-as-it-gets-prior-to-surgery. The awkward teenager posting please-love-me, or at least please-notice-me shots has grown into the adult doing exactly the same – with simply better, quicker, sharper technology. And this, again, is nothing new. Artists have been commissioned for centuries to paint portraits of those who could afford such luxuries. A tweak here, some good lighting there, a few wrinkles erased – the equivalent of a good photo filter.

Nothing of the Da Vinci Gargoyles and Grotesques in these lavish displays of public vanity and captured youth. So what has changed? The method of recording has become effortlessly smooth, enabling the self-portrait to be a thing of instantaneous joy. No, I was blinking, let’s try it again. No, creepy smile, and another. And another. The perception of the youth of today coloured by their ability to continuously record and edit. But is it for posterity, or has modern society made people feel that to withhold the daily reminder of my face, is akin to death itself. I have been forgotten. I cease to exist. You have not seen my daily #tbt photo or #yolo hilarity. The hashtag giving explanation to the #blonde photo. It is not only necessary to capture myself. It is necessary to broadcast myself across the world wide web to an audience of potential millions – why? Because my face might be necessary in their otherwise deprived lives.  They will appreciate not only my outer but also my radiating inner beauty and it will give them something to aspire to, or give as a design to the surgeon. Too harsh? Of course. I have been a selfie-junkie too. Endless photos of myself and my son; look, I’m a mother, a good mother, he’s smiling, I’m smiling, we’re happy!

selfie selfie

Who is this necessary to prove to? Capture the precious moments, not by living them, but by turning to the camera holding that smile for as loooong as possible. Keep it steady. Stop grimacing. Look like we’re having fun, come on now. We Are Having Fun. Look at us having such a Good Time. Because if we don’t share this, we are the only people who know we’re having a good time. Social media allows everyone to be the photographer – and critic. And the criticism is not saved for those we know. The image can be shared, passed on, published on other people’s blogs and websites, analysed in every detail. Particularly keen on this being the media with their circle of shame and their desire to bring people down; teeth not white enough, breasts not big enough, sign of a bingo-wing or a touch of cellulite? Something the portrait painter would have surely obliterated, choosing a more sympathetic angle, or at least a flattering puff sleeve.

There is claim that we ‘disempower ourselves’ by suggesting that the self-portrait is an act of vanity, that vanity itself is a harmful take on a natural impulse to share ourselves with the world, and to grow to love ourselves more in the process: or if nothing else, at the very bottom line to accept ourselves.

For a teenager trying to figure out their identity, taking self-portraits (yes, even of the facebook/myspace profile variety) might be an incredible tool to dive into finding self-confidence and figuring out who they are. For those experiencing invisibility through gender stereotypes, the whitewashing of media and advertisements and for those who’s bodies don’t fit the mold of what is typically seen as ‘beautiful’ the act of taking self-portraits can be a downright radical act. For me, having felt invisible for much of my life and not beautiful, taking self-portraits in which the goal is to see my own beauty and even dabble in vanity has been deeply healing. (1)

With self-timers available from the late 1880’s and cable release equipment prior to this, allowing images to be taken from a distance, the selfie is certainly not a new phenomenon. But it has changed in sophistication, ease of taking and availability of recording equipment with most people having access to a half decent mobile phone camera – with front facing camera mode – and the ability to edit and upload this instantaneously to social media and websites.

Sharing of self-portraits also pre-dates the internet. The 1860s saw huge popularity for the sharing of cartes de visite – little photocards. Even the photo booth dates back as far as 1880, and attracted groups of friends much as it does today. (2)

The question still persists: is it vanity and narcissism or a cry for attention and a deep desire to be approved of, admired or simply acknowledged. With ‘selfie sticks’ described as a ‘narcissistic scourge on society’ (3) and websites dedicated to showing selfies taken in inappropriate locations such as at funerals, there are inevitably going to be moral questions to answer. But on the whole, the selfie seems superficial and innocent; allowing the publisher to create their own timeline narrative; yearly, weekly, daily or as often as they feel compelled to.  New Yorker Jason Feifer’s search of databases of selfies with people recording themselves with a backdrop of a homeless man or a Holocaust memorial does not appear to judge the intention as he states that people may just want to record where they have been, but he asks the inevitable question of what is necessary:

“This is a thing that people do – and when you see it in aggregate it takes on a meaning. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to share whatever we see, whenever we see it,” he says. “We are still figuring out what value that is, and what is supposed to be shared – maybe everything should be shared, maybe nothing should be shared.” (4)

TonyBlair Kennard Phillips

Photo Op  –  Kennard Phillips

In a recent lecture Caroline Wright asked us to think about the Art Gallery as destination. We acknowledged that for many this is not a physical place any more, and that the online gallery, blogs and artist run spaces allow everyone to feel tangibly closer to ‘being an artist’. And why should the average selfie-taker not feel that their carefully angled and lit self-portrait could be up on the virtual wall alongside the best works in the National Portrait Gallery? As the world opens up virtually and the access to visual media and contemporary methods of constructing digital portraiture become more readily available, it is possible for everyone to feel their own inner David Bailey as they strike a pose and click away. The reality is that few of these images are well shot, lit or composed. They are the musical equivalent of the tin whistle playing alongside the orchestra. However, the tin whistle may also have a huge twitter following, a million friends on Facebook or an international Youtube audience. Does this make the celebrity an Artist? Is the internet the portrait gallery of the 21st Century.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote “no matter how much a painter may try, through geometry or eclecticism to elevate his art above his own particular tastes, his product will remain reflections of himself and, as such, cannot be universally binding.” (5)

Taste, preference and interpretation. The selfie also acts as a signifier of social identity. In this respect it is the contemporary artist who gives the photographic self-portrait critical distance; asking the audience to question the image, perhaps even exploring the notion of the selfie itself by removing the subject, or by adding ambiguity;  ‘the artist’s self-examination is multi-layered’(7)

Petrina Hick Venus

Venus  –  Petrina Hick

[..] the centrality of narcissism in typical twentieth-century views of photographic self-portraiture has recently started losing ground to systems of interpretation inherited from painting and the growing emphasis on the superficial use of the genre. (6)

  1. http://www.viviennemcmasterphotography.com/2013/05/28/vanity-and-self-portraiture/
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30455720
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24754876
  5. The Moment of Self Portraiture in German Renaissance Art; Joseph Leo Koerner P.187
  6. Narcissism and Narativity in Photographic Self-Portraiture; Elisavet Kalpaxi, Goldsmiths 2012
  7. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/22/beyond-the-selfie-step-away-from-the-smartphone-this-is-what-artists-are-for
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