In Praise of Selfies
Just as the affordability of mirrors drove the rise of self-portraits in Renaissance Art, reversible cameras have made every smartphone owner into a Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin. On how we're no longer self-conscious, but self-constructive.
NASA’s small rover Curiosity has 17 cameras to record black-and-white, color, and three-dimensional stereo images of Mars. Some, like the four Navcams, are for navigation; others, like the eight Hazcams, capture the terrain under and around the robot, searching for hazards. One camera, the Mars Descent Imager, captured color images of the rover’s landing. Two Mastcams take photographs in “true color,” correcting for the red dust of the red planet’s surface. The Mars Hand Lens Imager functions like a microscope, focusing on small, near objects; the Chemistry and Camera Complex, ChemCam, has a spectroscopy and a microimager telescope, for recording Curiosity’s sampling sites.
These 17 cameras have recorded Curiosity’s landing and subsequent movements around the planet Mars. They have also captured Curiosity. Some of the first images released to the public in August of last year were of the small rover’s steering equipment. The Hazam cameras were documenting the rocks and dust of the surface of Mars, but managed to capture Curiosity’s shadow and, in the lower right frame of one picture, one of the rover’s wheels.
Then in September, on Curiosity’s 32nd day on Mars, NASA announced: “Rover Takes Self Portrait.” At the site where Curiosity recovered its first samples of Martian soil, the talented little robot took dozens of pictures that were made into a composite selfie. The news that even the Mars Rover had taken a self-portrait went viral, even though Curiosity did only what humans have been doing for centuries.
Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves.
A PRODUCT OF THE Renaissance, the self-portrait has come of age in the era of digital photography. A recent poll by Samsung U.K. reported that 30 percent of all the photographs taken by millennials are selfies. Front-facing cameras have made staging self-portraits so easy that it can be difficult to remember the era when swivel screens seemed revolutionary or when self-timers first unchained photographers from their tripods.
Technology explains this most recent self-portrait craze, but also the original. The sudden availability of mirrors during the Renaissance allowed painters to turn themselves into subjects. Where before pools of water and polished stone had been the most common ways of looking at one’s self, suddenly more affordable alternatives to prohibitively expensive silver-mercury spread throughout Europe. Glass coated with a mix of mercury and tin allowed more and more Europeans to go through the looking-glass.
These early glass mirrors were usually convex, distorting the reflections in ways that some painters attempted to disguise by correction or concealment. But in one of the most famous self-portraits from this period, the Italian painter Parmigianino embraces the convexity of his mirror and embeds it in his painting.
As the poet John Ashbery describes in his spectacular poem about Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / significantly.” Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem captures the particular distortions of Parmigianino’s self-portrait but also the general distortions of reflexive art: “The glass chose to reflect only what he saw / Which was enough for his purpose.”
Self-portraiture, like all reflexive art, turns its gaze inward from what we see to the one who sees. In the digital age, the rise of selfies parallels the rise of memoir and autobiography. Controlling one’s image has gone from unspoken desire to unapologetic profession, with everyone from your best friend to your favorite celebrity laboring to control every word, every pixel of himself or herself that enters the world. Self-portraiture is one aspect of a larger project to manage our reputations.
It used to be embarrassing to stage your own portrait, an implicit acknowledgement that you had no one there to take it for you or no one interested enough in taking your picture, but that self-consciousness has disappeared. It has been replaced by the self-confidence that selfies require.
We cherish the possibility that someone, anyone, might see us. If photographs possess reality in their pixels, then selfies allow us to possess ourselves: to stage identities and personas. There is the sense that getting the self-portrait just right will right our own identity: if I appear happy, then I must be happy; if I appear intellectual, then I must be an intellectual; if I appear beautiful, then I must be beautiful. Staging the right image becomes the mechanism for achieving that desired identity. The right self-portrait directs others to see us the way we desire to be seen.
This has always been the power of self-portraiture. Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves. While so often selfies are denounced as exercises in narcissism, I’ve always experienced them as experiments in solipsism. A selfie suggests that no one else in the world sees you as you truly are, that no one can be trusted with the camera but you.
IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT self-portraiture is a genre in which women have long excelled. For so long the male gaze fixed women on the canvas, page, and screen as subjects, but self-portraiture allowed women to challenge this gaze with the ways in which they saw themselves. From Frida Kahlo’s plaintive, surrealistic self-portraits in oil to Cindy Sherman’s conceptual, performative portraits of herself as actresses, gods, and models, female artists have embraced the genre as a way of reclaiming their own image. No longer only objects, women became artists and volunteered as their own subjects.
One of the most celebrated self-portraits of the 20th century is Nan Goldin’s “Nan One Month After Being Battered,” from 1984. Goldin’s hair is brushed and set, falling around long, dangly earrings and a delicate pearl necklace, but she stares at us through two black eyes, one bloodshot and barely open. The photograph is an unsettling, arresting image of domestic abuse. Goldin challenges both the male gaze and the social convention that such feminine wounds and bruises are to be hidden or denied.
The staging of Goldin’s self-portrait is relational: although she is the only subject, the abuser’s presence in her life is implied by his abuse of her body and viewers are drawn into the portrait as witnesses to her suffering. It’s hardly the sort of photograph you’d expect to see in the Facebook album of a friend or in the Instagram account of a celebrity.
Nan Goldin’s self-portrait became iconic because it defied the conventions of the genre. She conformed to the expectation that a female subject should be decorated with makeup and adorned with jewelry, but refused to disguise her injuries. While we expect such injury to be documented by others—the police or the newspapers—Goldin’s self-documentation was courageous.
That courage is precisely what is lacking in so much of the self-portraiture circulating today. While we are eager to catalog the places we have been and the experiences we have had, we rarely offer documentation of the selves we are.
It is difficult to be shy in the digital age, but impossible to be honest. So often our self-portraits are of the selves we would like to become: they are aspirational, always attempting to make us into someone other than who we are. As Ashbery writes: “Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted, / Desolate, reluctant.”
All those millions of selfies filling our albums and feeds are rarely of the selves who lounge in sweatpants or eat peanut butter from the jar, the selves waiting in line at the unemployment office, the selves who are battered and abused or lonely and depressed. Even though the proliferation of self-portraits suggests otherwise, we are still self-conscious.
It took a while for memoirs and autobiographies to become honest: shedding their armor of artifice and objectivity. Perhaps self-portraits will do the same. Soon our photographs may be as honest and unadorned as our words—the pictures we take of ourselves as authentic as the pictures we take of others. However “uncharted, / Desolate, [and] reluctant” the present is, it’s worth documenting, not only for others, but for ourselves.