It is perhaps atypical to begin this essay with one of the more polarizing trends of our time: the selfie. Selfies are not art, but richly revealing agents of contemporary culture. Selfies and their social media brethren have prompted change in the field of photography, especially contemporary self-portraits.
When we look at selfies, we are looking at the beginning of the 21st century. As early as 2004, everyday digital photographers were posting self-portraits labeled as selfies on image sharing sites. But it was the introduction of smartphones—most notably Apple’s iPhone 4 in 2010 with a front-facing camera—that fostered the viral invasion of the selfie. Today, 85% of young adults own smartphones. Social media users upload 1.8 billion images a day, an estimated 30% of which are selfies. The endlessly multiplying and expanding terrain of the internet reifies an expansive understanding of self-portraits.
The selfie, the much-maligned synecdoche of the social media craze, represents the prospect that who we are as individuals is a sum total of our public images. Each of our online pictures, tweets, snaps, and posts say something about us. They not only add to our profiles, but to a continuously evolving description of self—defined not only by our visage, but our preferences, political views, vacation destinations, and favorite meals. In the same way, the popular understanding of self-portraiture has moved indefinitely from narrow imagery of the self to broad self-explication. In today’s digital age, the self-portrait is best defined as a broad practice of self-analytical image-making or curating rather than a particular subject matter and authorship.
This new understanding is part of a long history of self-portraiture, one that experienced a paradigm shift with the dawn of photography. The invention of the medium signaled a revolution in visual culture. Louis-Jacque-Mande Daguerre announced his photographic method—a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished copper plate—to the French Academy of Sciences in August 1839. In October 1839, American Robert Cornelius made a three-quarter self-portrait outside his family’s Philadelphia lamp and chandelier store using a box fitted with a lens from an opera glass. In the portrait, Cornelius peers heroically into the camera, holding an even gaze through the exposure—which in the early days of photography ranged from three to 15 minutes. His bold look in the photograph is matched by the proud inscription he included: “The first light Picture ever taken.” Though certainly not the first photograph, it is believed to be the first self-portrait made in the United States.
Recently, Cornelius’s photograph has gained new notoriety, now bestowed with the title of “the first selfie” on webpages across the internet. Though perhaps not accurate from a historical or technological standpoint, the popular understanding of this photograph is now linked to selfies. This re-framing is notable. It demonstrates that the definition of the “selfie” has expanded and now includes a wide historical range of self-portraits.
New trends have long reframed photography’s history, styles, and genres. Consider the pictorialist movement through the eyes of John Szarkowski—influential Museum of Modern Art curator and director of the photography department for almost 30 years. Szarkowski’s particular interest in the artist’s point of view is evident in the titles of many of his catalogues—The Photographer’s Eye (1966), Looking at Photographs (1973), William Eggleston’s Guide (1976)—all of which position the viewer in line with the photographer’s vision. Working amid the 1960s and 70s boom in photographic education, Szarkowski’s curatorial mission was to solidify photography’s place among the modern arts by emphasizing the unique vision of the artist. He claimed photography as a medium in the strictest sense, a medium of the artist's subjectivity. Within this new conceptual frame, Szarkowski looked to photography’s history and suggested that all pictorialist photography was self-referential claiming that pictorialist photographs mirrored the unique vision of the artist/maker. Though today, this analysis has become standard, it was Szarkowski’s framework re-applied to a past style that altered our popular understanding of pictorialism. Like Szarkowski’s reconsideration of pictorialist photography, selfies have changed the way we understand a whole history of self-portraits.
While it is evident that selfies have changed the way we understand photography’s past, how are they shaping its present? The work of fine art photographers Priya Kambli and artistic duo Hillerbrand and Magsamen represent notable approaches to self-portraiture in our selfie age. The work of these artists can be defined as self-portraiture, though neither conforms to the older definition of the term—a portrait of oneself, done by oneself. Their artwork, instead, exemplifies the “self-portrait” of the digital age: self-analytical image-making and/or curating. That does not imply that contemporary photographers fully embrace all aspects of social media. As theorist Abigail Solomon-Godeau noted, “art photography has always defined itself…in opposition to the normative uses and boundless ubiquity of all other photography.” Though they adopt the new expansiveness of the category of self-portraiture, these artists simultaneously reject certain elements typical of social media, challenging it through their process and products. Their resulting self-portraits characterize this genre in the wake of the selfie trend.
The work of Priya Kambli is a beguiling mix of her own acceptance and rejection of social media trends. Her work—with its combination of found and constructed imagery—demonstrates the expanding definition of self-portraiture in our digital age. Yet, in a digital world in which family albums have been replaced with digital ones and zeros, Kambli’s work insists upon the importance of the hand-made and the hand-held. Born in India, Kambli moved to the United States in 1993 after the death of her parents. She notes that at 18, she arrived in a new country with nothing but a 20-pound suitcase. In that case were family photographs and several family heirlooms, too precious to be left behind. Much of Kambli’s work combines those well-worn family mementos with her own contemporary photographs. The collaged collection is then re-photographed, and presented in seamless, panoramic format.
Kambli’s self-portrait constructions rarely give us a good view of the artist, if they include her at all. Instead, in her series Color Falls Down, Kambli represents her identity through the juxtaposition of images—only some of which she authored—and challenges the viewer to construct her character through their related meanings. In “Muma Baba and Me” an heirloom photo of the artist’s parents is centrally placed. On either side, Kambli herself is depicted, though her face remains out of view. On the left, she wears the same cuff that her mother wears in the central photo. On the right, she presents her ear in comparison to her father’s, turning her head like his. We are tempted to understand which images Kambli’s hand created. Yet it is the overall combination of imagery that best exemplifies the artist and describes her character. Through her careful juxtaposition of images, Kambli suggests the correlation between generations and cultures while the panoramic format of the work emphasizes the ideas of time and lineage.
Though at first glance, the eye-catching images of Houston-based artistic duo Hillerbrand and Magsamen seem far removed from the realm of social media, it was the overwhelming abundance of digital media that inspired the artists’ series. They note, “As a society, we haven’t lost that ability today to see the monumental in the mundane, but because of the speed, volume and quantity of what is given to us, we really have to take an active role in fleshing it out.” Their self-proclaimed self-portrait series House/hold includes more than images of the couple. Like an online profile, their possessions, their children, their spaces, and their dogs are all bound up in this work. Social media has made it acceptable to document every mundane aspect of our lives, presenting it to others digitally. In their series, the duo questions this trend. Does our constant documentation and sharing celebrate or obscure our daily lives?
In House/hold the couple creates mountains out of everyday molehills, adapting the hyper-pigmented, dramatic style of typical of commercial images, to spotlight simple moments and situations. The titles in Hillerbrand and Magsamen’s series reference well-known myths and legends, thereby aligning the everyday with the epic. In “Pandora,” the construction of a ready-to-assemble chest of drawers unleashes trouble on the artists and becomes a struggle of epic proportions. The box has consumed two figures and their arms and legs jut out of the cardboard at humorous angles. The seriousness of their execution contrasts with the lighthearted nature of their subject matter. Ultimately, this combination of subject and approach alludes to greater meanings within our own everyday experiences.
Photography, perhaps more than any other medium, reflects every aspect of our culture, and thus changes with it. In 2010, David Colman, a critic for the New York Times, noted that the selfie is so common that “it is changing photography itself.” The inescapable selfie trend has altered how we understand the medium’s past and has changed our definition of self-portraiture in the present. Selfies, it seems, have changed photography’s sense of self.
This article first appeared in Issue 8.
Lisa Volpe is the Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.