The “Selfie” is defined as a photograph that a person has taken of themselves, typically taken with a phone or camera and is shared on social media. The Oxford Dictionary named “selfie” as its word of the year in 2013, and the craze of young millennials taking these certainly hasn’t died down since. The great thing about the selfie is it allows you as a person to control the image, which allows you to feel empowered and can portray yourself the way you wish to be seen by others; however, could this be causing today’s society a lot of problems?
This essay is going to explore the cultural fascination with the self-portrait and the way this effects the relationship with the self.
Self-portraits originally were something that only the very few skilled photographers could capture. In the 16th century artists started to put themselves more into the art physically and in more of a stylish way. The self-portrait was originally seen to others as a status of the person depicted. It was also a sign of wealth and power, however, now in the 21st century anyone who has a camera or mobile phone can take a ‘selfie’, for likes on social media. Self-portraiture (selfies) has arguably become the defining visual genre of our generation.
Self-portraiture in photography and the corresponding concern with one’s image is an old obsession of the few that has become the mainstream norm of the 21st century generation. There are self-portraits dating back to the nineteenth century, produced soon after the invention of photography, when it was at the disposal of very few.
In the quote by Nicholas Mirzoeff when he states:
“The selfie resonates not because it is new, but because it expresses, develops expands and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait.”
(Mirzoeff, How to See The World, page 31)
Mirzoeff is trying to explain that the selfie is not just something completely new it’s something that has develop from the history of the self-portrait and has now built on the history of the old masters to create something in the modern day. And what was once something that showed wealth and power is now able to let the new generation show confidence through the selfie. This can be shown in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s book ‘How to See the World’, in onephotograph, called ‘Velázquez, Las Meninas’.
Figure 1- Velázquez, Las Meninas
The Las Meninas is a self-portrait of the artist Diego Velazquez, a Spanish painter, the painting is an arrangement of visual puns that revolve around the life of the artist. As we look at the painting we can see the artist has placed himself to the left of the painting with a canvas blocking the view, the act of placing himself in the painting shows us that Vela?zquez believes that he deserves to be in the royal family’s company. The next part of the painting we look at is the two people in the background which we are unsure whether it’s a painting hanging on the wall or a mirror, however, it is concluded that it is a mirror which appears to reflecting the image of the King and Queen, the mirror on the wall reflects the image of the royal couple, the painting itself reflects an image of a single moment of time. We see the reflection of the king and queen in the mirror as they as they would be positioned from the viewer’s position. The entire scene is painted from the point of view of the royal couple. This intentional confusing of the characters within the painting and ‘actuality’ gives this scene a strong feeling of unreality, despite all the realism with which it is painted. So Vela?zquez painted not what he saw, but what the royal couple saw, a clever, yet gracious way to show deference to them. By putting the King in a painting with the artist allowed for him to be an equal but also showing the means of ordering and representing a society, showing the relationship of the self-portrait and the artist all in one.
The selfie in the modern day is now seen as something that is showing a part of the self, a part of the person’s identity. On a fundamental level, we understand a portrait in any medium to be an artist’s interpretive rendering of the ‘subject’, while a self-portrait is an artist’s representation of self and the performance that comes with this. We have overtime witnessed a shift in photography from what was once photographing for others for self-consumption to what we could now be a self-documentation for the consumption of others by placing it on the internet on different platforms for likes and retweets which in turn allows the photographer to feel more confident within themselves.
The idea of women taking ‘selfies’ brings up questions about deeply held and socially engrained notions of beauty and the portrayal of the feminine in images. Although some argue that portraits of the self can be empowering for women, it could also be degrading as when women are being virtually ‘liked’ through the way in which they look. Jill Walker states that “self-portraits capture us differently from portraits taken of us by other” and that digital photography of the self allows us to “express ourselves rather than simply allowing ourselves to be described by others”. (http://www.gnovisjournal.org/2013/12/11/jawdat-self-portraiture/).
Whiles selfies can be viewed in a what seems to be a negative light, they can also play a positive role in people’s lives. It allows for a person to portray a version of themselves to the world. The relationship between taking the self-portrait and the self allows them to make a statement to the world and stand out the way they want to, it allows them to stand out among the masses. A study from the University of California, found taking lots of selfies can boost your confidence.
Many artists express themselves in many ways, the art expresses who they are as a person through visual medium. Francesca Woodman is an example of this. As a young woman, she photographed herself obsessively but often she appears as a blur of movement or a half-hidden figure, someone constantly trying to escape or hide. The end result is not self-portraiture, but a series of stills from a continuous performance in which she plays with the notion of the self, disguising, transforming and defacing her own body. An example of this is one of her self-portraits ‘About Being My Model, Providence, State Island’.
Figure 2 – Woodman, About Being My Model, 1976
A self-portrait can also be a mask to hide behind or can reveal some aspect or dramatization of the person taking the photograph. When looking at Francesca Woodman’s self-portraits, people tend to assume that the woman in the image is Francesca herself, however, it’s often (as shown above) her friends who stand in the photograph representing her. Perhaps her and her friends, in turn become the character of Francesca, a reconstruction of herself. The self-portrait in this case allows the relationship of the self to be represented using other people, allowing her to express herself in a completely different way that doesn’t include the person who’s being represented in the self-portrait.
When taking our self-portraits, we are allowing ourselves to experiment with the way we see ourselves within our culture. Cindy Sherman is a contemporary master of social photography. She is a key figure of the “Pictures Generation”. Sherman turned to photography to explore a wide range of common female social roles or personas. Cindy Sherman sought to call into question the seductive and often oppressive influence of mass-media over our individual identities. By turning the camera on herself in a game of extended role playing of fantasy Hollywood, fashion, mass advertising roles and poses, Sherman ultimately called her audience’s attention to the powerful machinery and make-up that lay behind the countless images circulating in an incessantly public, “plugged in” culture. Sexual desire and domination, the fashioning of self-identity as mass deception, these are among the unsettling subjects lying behind Sherman’s extensive series of self-portraiture in various disguises. When taking the photograph’s, Sherman played into the male conditioning of looking at photographs of exposed women, but she takes on the roles of both male photographer and female subject, to capture the idea of the male gaze the best she could.
Figure 2 – Sherman, Untitled Film Still 1978
In this Untitled Film Still from 1978 you can see how carefully thought out Sherman’s photographs truly are. The photographs are taken from a low angle, so that it seems like we can see her but she can’t see us. Using sharp lighting and a sharp focus allows Sherman to stand out from the city background. By looking away from the camera, with a slightly confused face and part lips you can tell she has a sense of threat/anxiety, in comparison to if she was looking at the camera we would get confidence. Sherman’s photographs perform the way in which women are represented within the everyday life, showing the visual relationship of the self and the self-portrait.