Shooting at Mirrors; The Self Portrait in the Modern Age

In more recent years, the autonomous image, the ‘selfie’ has been devalued in the eyes of popular culture, even to the extent of the shortening of the name. It is not something which is given any particular artistic merit, and those who do are often considered to take themselves a little too seriously. The most curious thing is perhaps that although there is no intrinsic difference between the tourist who asks their friend – or even a passing stranger – to take their photograph outside a landmark, and the person who simply acknowledges the progression of modern technology and angles their front facing camera to do it all themselves, I suspect that the latter would attract strange glances and even a touch of mockery from onlookers.

But the self portrait has been an accepted artistic pursuit for centuries previously. As far back as ancient civilisations, people have attempted to represent themselves in the form of artistic media, for reasons which range as broadly as the media used.

The self portrait flips the concept of an artistic gaze on its head. The male artist painting a voluptuous nude holds a very different significance to the young woman talking stark black and white images of her own body. It not only alters the intent of the piece from the outset, it arguably also changes the way we, the viewers, perceive that imagery.

Take the work of Francesca Goodman as example. Incredibly personal, at times painfully blunt and open portraits of herself, but there is that sense of raw intimacy. For me, at least, whilst the work reveals perhaps more than the viewer will ever feel comfortable with, it is a sense more in line with accidentally seeing some private moment, a voyeuristic discomfort rather than the discomfort that might be apparent were we told that these photographs were taken by someone else.

In this photograph, Woodman appears naked, her pose awkward. To the viewer aware of her self portraiture, this presents as a personal and very vulnerable moment, but one which she chooses to commit to film. No matter the circumstances surrounding it (and we can likely assume that little of her work came from the happiest of places given her suicide at 22), she has nevertheless assumed control in some way. This image is hers and hers alone. Her ideas, her choices.

[Nudity ahead]


Contrast that by imagining that there is another person present. That out of view, a man is operating the camera, offering instructions. The entire mood, the meaning, the interpretation all shifts enormously.

Context is important. Without context there is just information, and if information is power, context is control.

Another way of looking at it might be to consider that gaze in the moment of creation itself. The masks which we put on for other people, our relative comfort and expressive behaviour in front of another living person when compared to what we feel when we are alone could easily result in two markedly different images even if all other factors were made identical. A single set, background, the same subject posing in front of the same camera, but there’s the variable. The camera operator. I’d wager that the photograph taken via remote trigger, or self timer, of the model posing alone in a room will hold a completely different feeling to one in which the camera is operated by somebody else; the presence of a second person in that space makes all the difference.

We all have our masks for the world beyond what is inside our minds, because to display openly and unfiltered our innermost thoughts and desires can feel like a violation of self.

Where, then, is the line between ‘self portrait’ and ‘selfie’? Where do we place the divide between art and snapshot, if such a thing is even possible to place? It’s certainly not as simple as saying that the portrait shot at arms length through a mobile phone can not be art, because I’ve seen some amazing work taken using phone cameras- just as I’ve seen (and taken) plenty of terrible snapshots with sophisticated equipment. It’s not down to the cost of the materials used, it never has been. 

In the creation of representational works which mirror our own image, we assume control. We choose what to reveal, select what the viewer should see, what we want them to see. In this way, at least, there is markedly little difference between the artistic self portrait, and the phone selfie. It all goes back to context, though, and the context surrounding a snapshot has always been a world away from the context in which anything which can be called art is created. It’s a means to personal expression, something that the creator might choose to make public – or not. What matters more than the end audience is the privacy and vulnerability in which it began. But then, that might be applied to any creative output.

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  1. A very interesting read! I hadn’t really thought about the selfie being the modern self portrait before, but now you pointed it out it has sparked a whole new thought process for me. I also love ‘if information is power, context is control’.

  2. Glad to hear that my mutterings are sparking something! It’s all sort of based on part of a conversation I was having not so long back, and got me thinking about the whole thing.

  3. Reblogged this on escape indie.


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