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.
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.
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.
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.
©Alain Laboile, La Famille
Lensculture has a really good video interview of Alain Laboile up right now, found here (embedding not permitted). Laboile began taking photos in 2004 in order to show his sculptures to clients, and he began taking pictures of his wife and six children. A strong body of work continues to emerge from his practice.
This interview left me with things to think about, and maybe it will do the same for others.
It’s a familiar situation in the arts, no matter the medium: restricting your tools, paradoxically, increases possibility. It’s a matter of expertise. If there’s an image I want, rather that switching to a lens that allows me to capture it without moving my position — without further thought or consideration of the image — am I growing photographically, creatively, in the same way I would if I have one lens and have to find a way to make the image work, or a different image that says what I wanted to say?
There are limitations to this, of course, and it is almost endlessly frustrating if I’ve chosen the wrong tool to use. I’ve discovered through very cranky photowalks that I think in wider frame; if I carry a 100mm lens, I’m stomping and cussing by the end of the day because nothing is working. A 50mm or 35mm works much better for my eye.
It’s similar in painting, where a frequent art school assignment is to use two or three colors for an entire term. We were restricted to titanium white, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna for 14 weeks. With that combination, a good black could be made, a white was already there, and a variety of shaded and tinted hues in between could be mixed as needed. This exercise would fail if the colors were similar in value, and I can only imagine the cursing that would ensue.
Next time I am photographically stuck, I’ll try to stick one wide prime lens on my camera, and leave everything else at home. It could be freeing.
There are beautiful color photographs out there, and sometimes I take a picture that is about the color, but mostly, I find it distracting and jarring. I still haven’t resolved whether I truly prefer black and white in my own work, if I’m just terrifically unskilled with color, or if I’m indulging an affectation. Regardless, eliminating color is another way to strip an image down to its bones, to get to the heart of the photograph.
My portfolio this semester is all in black and white, and very stripped, low-contrast black and white, at that. It’s a portfolio of grays. I don’t presume to consider it either timeless or universal, as it is very personal work, but color would decimate the atmosphere and mood I’m working toward.
‘I have heard a lot of photographers, say things like, ‘I went to photography school, and I don’t know what to shoot. Because when I shoot something, I mentally compare my image to so and so or so and so…’ And finally, they feel so weighted down by references, that it hinders their photographic practices. I don’t have any photographic influences, I don’t have any master, and I prefer to stay a good distance away from photographic culture. What matters is shooting what you feel like shooting, concentrate on that, and the equipment comes second.”
I can’t help but see Sally Mann in Laboile’s work, but I think that is unavoidable; children in the country, growing up free, skillfully captured in black and white. I love reading about photographic history, and the work of others. I find the work of others very inspiring, educational, and grounding. Comparing oneself to others is both a valuable way to get better, and a way to shackle oneself into immobility.
I want to know what others have done, if only so if I develop a style very similar to someone else’s, I know it before it is pointed out to me. I’m not sure the struggle against comparison is made easier by not having a lot to which to compare myself. I’m still thinking about this.
Alain Laboile’s webite can be found here.
I can also be found on Twitter:
— Casey Clough (@cloughphoto) April 12, 2015
©2015 Casey Clough 365:40
The 365 project has become part of my routine now, and I’ve even forgotten about it a time or two. The alarm I have set on my phone goes by unnoticed, and then it’s almost midnight and I am shooting something, anything.
I haven’t moved away from the iphone, in fact I have probably used it more. The best camera is the one you have with you, after all.
I’m starting to find some direction in my work that I want to pursue seriously for the at least the rest of the semester, and I am not sure yet how that will ed up fitting in the daily photo project, but I hope it will. The project is making me think of photography every single day, even when I don’t want to, don’t feel like seeing, don’t feel like editing, just Don’t Wanna.
I play lazy some days and use photos from a shoot I was doing for something else. I’ve a time or two posted an image I didn’t like or care for at all, just to have it done. I still have some catching up to do.
I guess it is going like a 365 project that has a person involved in it. I still don’t know how those people who put together amazing conceptual self-portrait 365 projects do it.
Maybe they shoot huge volumes on the weekend and edit and post through the week.
Goals for the coming month-ish? Still fewer stinkers. Less laziness. More color. Wrap the project into the body of work I am pursuing. Figure out how to best put lots of
images into a blog post without going completely bonkers because WordPress themes are design to squash doing anything differently at all.
Yep. The laziest, most awful thing I posted this month, just to get something up. There is no redeeming value to this image, but goddammit, something got posted. I’ve come to a decision about the profanity in my “professional” online life, by default. I curse. I won’t curse in an interview or around clients unless I know they’re okay with it, but I just will curse. Truth in advertising.