I've been thinking a lot about photography lately. Partly I'm sure, because of my love of Instagram and my almost obsessive posting of images and delight on discovering what others choose to disseminate.
I am not big on selfies, which seem to be one, if not the, biggest category that the images I see fall under, so I've been wondering what it represents. 'Selfie' was declared International Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionary, signalling both its ubiquity and perhaps its philosophical and cultural import.
I hear all the surface critiques, the narcissism-culture comments, blah blah blah, and I don't buy them. Much like updates on Facebook and Twitter, I think they represent more than the sum total of their parts.
A book group that I am involved in has been reading Mark C. Taylor's book, Hiding, which is both a critique and a celebration of surfaces. In a world where 'depth' has all but disappeared, surfaces become signposts to much more than superficiality. As Taylor says, "Depth is supposed to put an end to the play of surfaces by securing their foundation. Thus when depth disappears, surfaces become infinitely complex. This complex superficiality and superficial complexity is both disorienting and energizing--full of creative possibility...Surface has never been accepted and embraced as such but is always justified in terms of the heavens or the depths. When height and depth collapse, we are left with nothing more and nothing less than the proliferation of fleeting surfaces. To insist that these surfaces obscure more secure depths is to flee the creative-destructive effervescence that is our condition."
Representation by photography is nothing new. Since the dawn of the camera-age, we have been inundated with self-portraits (and self-portraits have been around since the Middle Ages, gathering steam of social acceptability during the Renaissance), but it seems to me that selfies represent something of a shift, or perhaps I should say, herald a shift in the way we use images and words in our world today.
And I think the difference between traditional self-portraits and the selfie is by considering it not simply as a form of photography but as a medium of self-identification.
When photography first emerged it not only freed visual arts from obligations to reality-hence the rise of the various forms of painting that came after--impressionism, abstract etc., no longer did we need painting to record our lives literally, photography could now do that, but it also became a means of recording 'truth'--pictures don't lie-except they do, but that's for another time perhaps.
Self-portraits have always made room for performance, you can dress-up as a cowboy and get your photo taken in a vintage-style so you look like a wild west character etc., and selfies seem to trade on this particular dynamic of photographic potential.
Technology is one of the keys to understanding the selfie I think. Firstly, there is the advent of digital cameras which made photography both cheaper and quicker, then came mobile phone technology and very soon after the mirror option, which is might be the key to selfie-mania. These dynamics met the cultural, or social need for selfies--working out when that moment occurred is a bit like trying to date the birth of post-modernism or virtually anything else, there are so many threads that came together, but suffice to say that it was a collision of technological capability mixed with social desire and opportunity.
There is one more factor that accounts for the rise of the selfie I think and that is celebrity. And a particular kind of late 20th century celebrity-the kinds of celebrity that have emerged out of 'reality tv' culture and online access-whether it be the rise of someone like Kim Kardashian on the back of a sex-tape, or Paris Hilton, or any number of other celebs who has emerged over the past couple of decades in the era of digital and social media. The celebrity selfie is not an innocent and unguarded photo of a generally inaccessible celebrity, it is PR, pure and simple, it is the canny marketing of a branded life, and that branded life is dependent upon these moments of 'reality' to connect with an increasingly global audience. So we get Kim Kardashian's famous 'booty shot' showing her hard at work on regaining her post-baby body. Also there is a focus on the body, not just the face in 'selfie-world', and we shouldn't under-estimate that dynamic.
"Photos, once slices of a moment in the past — sunsets, meetings with friends, the family vacation — are fast becoming an entirely new type of dialogue. The cutting-edge crowd is learning that communicating with a simple image, be it a picture of what’s for dinner or a street sign that slyly indicates to a friend, “Hey, I’m waiting for you,” is easier than bothering with words, even in a world of hyper-abbreviated Twitter posts and texts.
“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”
By extension, in a globally increasingly inter-connected world of digital presence, we all seek to brand ourselves in some way and the selfie has become part of that process. We follow suit, the face, and body become currency, creating a kind of image-currency--not just for celebrity, but for us as well. These self-portraits are a means by which we transmit information (currency) about ourselves.
The selfie has also attracted the attention of the academy. Lev Manovich of Cuny, has launched a project called Selfiecity analyzing selfies taken from five cities – Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paolo – with the objective of understanding how these self-taken portraits differ across age, gender, and culture. The results are pretty interesting-youth and females tend to offer up the most selfies, although the actual percentage of selfies is lower than expected in the cities they investigated.
Social media are vehicles of interpersonal communication, and they are voluntary opportunities and by virtue of both those elements they become a site where we can study human behavior, so regardless of our personal views on the worth or value of selfies it would seem that they represent some clue to the ways in which we both understand represent ourselves in the 21st century.
Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud and can see lots of holes in my thinking, but I wanted to throw it out there and begin the process of doing a bit more focused work on what it might mean-meanwhile, time for an Instagram fix.