In celebration of the selfie.

 

It took me years to stop feeling a knee-jerk distaste whenever I heard the word “selfie.” To be honest, I still don’t like the word. It’s too cutesy, it has an edge of disdain, it just grates my ears a bit. I found myself internally agreeing when people would grumble about the narcissism of the selfie. I was a devotee of the self-portrait. The serious work, not the casual isn’t-my-hair-cute today shots. I looked down my nose at those.

Francesca Woodman. The undisputed mistress of the selfie, as far as I am concerned. If you haven't, go watch the The Woodmans. Right now. Twice. This website will wait.

Francesca Woodman. The undisputed mistress of the selfie, as far as I am concerned. If you haven’t, go watch the The Woodmans. Right now. Twice. This website will wait.

I was wrong, as I frequently am. First, the people I’ve heard complaining about people who take selfies are usually really complaining about women taking selfies, and that’s some sexist bullshit I’m embarrassed to have indulged without thinking it through. Women, take pictures of your beautiful selves and post wherever you want. Or not, if you prefer. Images of women have been marketing tools and purveyed for the pleasure of men (solely) for long enough, claim your own image. Toss off your headscarf, if you like. Or put it on to honor your spiritual path.

Vivian Meier. She conveys isolation and the power of the invisible eye, even looking at herself.

Vivian Meier. She conveys isolation and the power of the invisible eye, even looking at herself.

Second, I am overjoyed at the proliferation of photography through the spread of the smartphone. You’ll never hear me complaining about how too many people taking pictures is killing photography. There are forums full of bitter people to do that. People taking pictures is photography. I feel like I should say that again – people taking pictures is photography. I am not addressing the financial aspects of professional photography here, there are rude truths there (news agencies stealing images from the internet, the malignant spread of the idea of working for “exposure” etc), but the soul of photography.

 

Today, I am writing a simple celebration of the selfie.

The selfie holds a similar place in my photographic practice as the sketchbook does for my painting and drawing, or journaling for my writing and living; they are quick, pressure-free ways to explore an idea, get past my blocks and see what I’m visually feeling, and so, so freeing. When someone models for me, they usually have an emotional investment in the finished photos looking good, of the photos looking like finished pieces – and I do, too. That’s totally understandable, as for most of us posing for the camera is a self-conscious affair, it raises insecurities and makes us feel exposed, and vulnerable to the eye and the will of someone else. My reputation is also on the line when I point my lens at someone else, in a way it is not when I point it at me. I’m free to embarrass myself however I choose.

Most of my self-portraits selfies are not polished. They are not “good.” An image makes the jump from selfie to self-portrait in my mind when it crosses a certain threshold of quality, which is a distinction I am trying to erase in my own thinking about my work. An image is an image is an image, and it doesn’t matter how it was made, with what it was made, or whether it was a serendipitous snapshot or a carefully crafted set shoot that took weeks to build.

Stop yelling. I’m not at all saying that practice, honing one’s craft, or learning technique is not valuable, it is vitally and critically valuable. I am saying that I do not regard an image that took days of work to create as being intrinsically more valuable than one that was taken by a drunk with an iPhone (ahem). The impact, the authenticity, the resonance of an image is in the image, not the tools. No, I don’t like it either when a photograph I spent hours and hours on fails, while a snapshot I took while holding my phone out of my sunroof sings, but that’s my problem. It’s a mindset I learned in school, where the amorphous metric of “effort” was given weight. That makes sense for young children, but not for grown artists. The image is the image.

Ahem. Slight tangent into rantsville there.

I find that grabbing a camera, any camera, and pointing it myself as I am, or following a half-baked idea, helps me grab the threads of what my creative brain is thinking, back in the shadows where I can’t see in normal light. Like a sketch that opens the door to a series of paintings, or a series of catastrophic existential questions, these unselfconscious explorations are a way to access the lifeblood of my creativity.

Robert Cornelius, you started it all.

Robert Cornelius, you started it all.

Which lately seems to involve a lot of bathing with my phone. Whatever bounces your begonias, subconscious.

As I emerge from a long artistic fallow period, and a long period of healing after shaking the holy bejeezus out of my entire life, I hope to remember to give myself permission to play, to explore photographically without feeling weighted down by the pressure of Photography, and to revel in the simple joy that is the selfie.

The sketchbook, the late-night coffee conversation, the exploratory edge of a photographic practice.

Long live the selfie.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *