Is This Art? (I call it “I Stye”)
What do Kim Kardashian, Chris Hadfield, The Pope, Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, you and I all have in common?
We all take selfies. That is, taking a picture of yourself with your smartphone and then posting it on social media for all to see. Be it for a Twitter profile or to update the world on your most excellent adventures, people from all walks of life engage in this phenomenon that defines our time. 50% of men and 52% of women say they’ve done it. It is positively de riguer.
Is it art? Many say it is indeed an emerging form of artistic expression. But to them I say, give me a break! There is a vast difference between an artistically composed shot and some dude who just wants to show off his pecks on his profile. Art is supposed to be special and unique. With everyone doing it, how can it be considered art?
Self portraiture is anything but new. In the 1700s Rembrandt painted a series of self portraits around the time mirrors became cheaper and better. (Kind of like how selfies became popular right after the flip feature became widely available.) And later Van Gogh painted one of his most detailed portraits ever… of himself. He signed it prominently – which is interesting considering Van Gogh signed only a small portion of his paintings, implying dissatisfaction with his own work. Did he find himself irresistable?
The practise isn’t new to photography either. Artists have been pointing the camera at themselves in the mirror since the camera was invented.
And then of course there’s the video journalist “selfie”, taken to prove the reporter was right there while the building burned. And this desire to insert ourselves into the action has crept into many people’s personal selfie style. As we take our selfies with whatever celebrities we run into or atop the Eiffel Tower while on holidays this summer, it’s akin to sending a postcard only, obviously, infinitely faster.
And it’s that immediate gratification that makes the modern day selfie so popular. No need to wait days for the film to be developed, only to discover your hair was wonky and the moment was missed. Now you can take the shot a hundred times over and edit like a pro, until your selfie shows the world exactly who you want it to see. That kind of fabrication isn’t art. It’s marketing.
According to mediabistro.com, 34% of men and 13% of women admit to digitally enhancing every selfie they take. My guess is the actual numbers are much higher. I had to take the above “I Stye” shot 7 times before I was satisfied and I added a filter. Digital manipulation can go so far as to make it look like something happened that never really did.
What I love about the selfie is that the good ones make me laugh. Ellen DeGeneres posted what has got to be the most shared selfie ever at this year’s Oscars. I never get tired of looking at their smiling faces, partly because the thought of all those A-listers in their finest running to photo bomb the shot is hilarious. (Apparently Kevin Spacey was sitting clear across the room. Who did he have to climb over to get into frame?)
Ironically, celebrities sharing selfies makes them seem more accessible. More like regular people. But for the truly regular people, the selfie posed on some beautiful beach serves to make their lives appear more fabulous then regular. How many of your friends’ lives seem more glamorous then they are if their selfies are any indication? Is the selfie the great equalizer?
Kim Kardashian advises that when taking a selfie one should always shoot from high to low, to “know your angle” and to find the light. But when I take selfies with my friends, the challenge of getting everyone in the shot is what’s most important. And in the moment, that usually seems absurd and hilarious.
I think time will tell that the authentic selfie is what holds enduring value (be it real or sentimental). And if you practise your skills enough, maybe one day yours will be considered art. But don’t bank on it. According to Samsung, a whopping 30% of all photos taken by people between the ages 18 and 24 are, alas, selfies. The competition’s going to be fierce.
The best selfies tell a story. So, what’s your story?