It's always frustrated, intrigued and perplexed me: the selfie. Although the term "selfie" was only recently coined, self-portraiture has been around for thousands of years. I suppose it began with some of the first cave-inscriptions, but became more prominent in the early-Rennaisance era (mid-15th century-ish), when traditional artists such as painters and sculptors began depicting themselves in their work.
It was a new idea (it seems): the artist as the main subject in their own work. But it makes sense, doesn't it? You gain so much control, being your own subject/model. Position yourself exactly as you want, stand up a mirror, and get to work. You don't have to tell a model how to sit, what expression to make, where to put their left hand -- it is all within your control. The artist and model can take breaks simultaneously -- and, when photography came in the mix, self-portraiture became a whole new game. Not only could you use a photograph as the model for a traditional work, the photograph itself also became a work of art. Artists were expressing themselves through sculptures, paintings, and photographs of themselves.
But something funny happens when the work becomes about the artist themself. For one, the artist becomes judged as a subject -- finally seen! The figure behind the brush, the chisel, the camera. But the work is viewed differently, too. It is less about what makes the artist an artist and more about the human behind the art. Somehow, self-portraiture humanizes not only the art, but also the artist. In a way, it is liberating for the artist to be portrayed in their own work. But there is a delicate balance in the form of self-expression...
All of the artists at the beginning of the self-portrait era knew that their portrayals of themselves would be viewed and judged by everyone who saw their work. Access now is much easier and farther reaching than it was then, but the awareness of viewer perception has always been present in self-portraiture...how could it not? Despite the inevitable public judgement though, the self-portrait artist must first look at themself.
There is something about composing a work of oneself that forces the artist to look at themself differently. Regardless of whether you're creating a labour-intensive sculpture or simply snapping a "selfie" on your phone, you are seeing yourself. You may tuck in the double chin or omit the pubic hair, but those changes are conscious and, in the end, you present yourself to the world how you want to be seen. But between the onset of the idea and the final presentation, there is the journey of self-discovery. Are you changing the way you truly appear to meet the demands of your audience? Why, and with what intention? How does that affect your perception of yourself, or of who you think you are? Just because it's a self-portrait doesn't mean it has to be honest...but don't you think that dishonesty affects the artist/presenter in some way?
When I've done self-portraits in a few separate art classes (drawing, printmaking, photography), I have always been tempted to present the person I believe others want to see: scarless, skinny, flawless. But the works always came out much more true, and from this repetitive process I came to see myself in a different light. The girl I imagined myself being is actually quite boring. She hasn't been ran over by another skier or hit a plastic fence going 80 miles per hour. She hasn't laughed much...where are the lines to show that? She is perfect and beautiful and terrifyingly boring. And that's not me.
So maybe this self-portraiture process is a positive thing. Maybe it allows us to understand ourselves better, even improve ourselves. But, what about self-portraiture in Social Media?
For artists like Rembrandt and van Gogh, self-portraiture is (was?) highly respected...but what about for artists today?
I suppose it depends on how you define art. Does being Instagram famous make you an artist? It seems like an easy question to answer (no!), but...think about it a bit. Isn't Instagram just another form of self-expression? A new medium for visual artists to utilize in a variety of ways?
As much as I try to believe that taking selfies (or having others take photos of you for your Social Media feed) is an art form, I struggle deeply with that notion. Interestingly, I am contractually obliged by some companies to post photos of myself with their products visible. It is part of my job, and as natural or "organic" as these posts may seem, they are still contrived and planned. I don't want to be an advertisement but, let's face it, it's part of what I do. Although I try to be honest and true, advertising on my platforms affects me enormously, for many reasons...
Reason #1: Consumption is not the answer. The skis I use and the clothes I rep do not make me happy (re-read). I find joy in having nice things, but I don't need many things to be happy. Despite the fact that I look fulfilled by using these products, in truth I am just grateful that the sponsorships allow me to get outside in the mountains and do what I love. These companies are the reason that skiing is my job. And despite how torn up I am about my sport's excessive consumption and consequential environmental impacts, I know that what I am doing is making me happy, and I have to believe that this joy and this job are my catalysts for the change I believe I was ultimately meant to make. Though some of my posts may be for sponsorships, I can still believe in and encourage my audience to get outside. To stand up against climate change (seems ironic, I know). To be their best selves. I can still tell my story and hope to inspire others.
Reason #2: The dishonesty in Social Media is slightly repulsive. The perfect pictures on perfect days, with perfect hair and big smiles do not show the whole picture. They are glimpses of beautiful moments in seemingly beautiful lives when the truth is: life is messy. While these wonderful moments exist, they are interlaced with countless difficult ones: with suffering and tears, fear and uncertainty. So, don't be fooled. Those famous babes on Insta fart and pick their noses and have really, really bad days too. It's unfortunate that perfection is so ruthlessly perpetuated on Social Media... It gives viewers unrealistic expectations. In fact, many of these Social Media "Influencers" are probably unhappy and heartbroken. They are attached to their phones. They are attached to their "likes" -- their sense of self-satisfaction exists in a number below a selfie. When that number doesn't consistently grow or meet their high expectations, they are sadly impacted in ways their viewers cannot understand. I know, because I've felt it.
Which is why I did my final project in Photography this spring on self-portraiture (or, the "selfie"). Examining the concept of the selfie was necessary for me to come to terms with it, and here's what I found:
No matter how "modest" you think you are (or try to be), a selfie is still seen as an expression of vanity and self-absorption. Posting photos of yourself seems narcissistic (and sometimes is), and effects the way your viewers see you. It will even affect the way your friends and loved ones see you, so you must be prepared for the repercussions of that: the judgement and relentless criticism along with the adoration and support. Regardless of whether your selfies are intended to be sarcastic, people still take you too seriously. Even in self-depricating photos, photos depicting your dark sides, or ones blatantly intended to spark a conversation, the selfie-taker is still at the center of attention. Self-centered? On the surface, it appears so. No matter how you frame it, selfie portraits are seen by many as pointless, self-absorbed perpetuation.
And I get it. But there are many people who appreciate and respect self-portraiture, too. And I also understand that side.
Self-portraits are not just examinations of the self -- they are a way to tell a story. They are a way to relate to others, a way to connect and inspire. If people would rather see photos of ME than beautiful photographs of mountains, or artistic interpretations of my surroundings, so be it. If selfies are influential then, god damnit, I'm going to try and influence my viewers to be better: to be more confident, to be good neighbors, to be kind and compassionate. I'm not totally sure how to do that without seeming like just another self-proclaimed self-help guru, but I can try...try to be different, try to be honest. Try to connect to people and connect people to each other. Try to love myself as I am, and hopefully help others do the same. Try to tell my story in a way that relates to viewers, try to create positive change. After all, that's what I believe I'm meant to do, and I have to fulfill that purpose somehow... if it's through selfies, then fine. It's not exactly my dream method, but there will be time for that later. For now, Social Media selfies are my catalyst, whether I like it or not...
These are the self-portraits that I took for the final project in my Large Format film photography class that I took this spring. My intention was to examine how my art/self-portraits are influenced by endorsements and by my idea of self-representation to my audience. Regardless of how raw, natural or organic I try to be, I am inevitably influenced (and sometimes controlled) by exterior forces. This is an examination of that.
Each of these photographs took a minimum of 2 hours of work to render: from the extensive setup of a 4x5 inch film camera to the developing of the film and finally the digital processing and editing. Hence, a lot of thought and preparation went into each photograph: I not only learned so much about the intricate process of ancient self-portraiture, but I learned so much about myself. How am I seen? How do I see myself? A lot can be told from these self-portraits. You can see me holding a shutter-release in each photo: I wanted to make it clear that I was taking these pictures of myself, myself.
In no way am I trying to degrade the companies whose products I used in some of these shots: I am simply examining my relationship to those products/companies and am interested in how my image is affected by them. I am grateful for these sponsorships but am also aware of the need to be critical and educated about the impact the partnerships have on me and my followers. Critical thinking is healthy and I intend to perpetuate that model of awareness.
Thanks for looking! Please comment (and leave contact info if necessary) if you have questions, concerns, or just interesting thoughts!
adventures to and from, here and there, home and away, around the world--through my eyes, lens, and mind