The Rise of the Selfie

Self portraits have never been more popular, and certainly never cheaper. As soon as mobile ‘phones had cameras installed into them, the selfie exploded in popularity. And as soon taken, shared with friends in the virtual world. It doesn’t matter where you are (although toilets, bathrooms and their mirrors are surprisingly popular), nor really what you are doing. ‘Look at me! Look, I’m here. This is what I’m doing right now!’

Naturally celebrities are in on the act a well. Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Madonna; all are enthusiasts of the form.

Of course self-portraits are nothing new. The earliest recorded self portrait is probably that of early photographic pioneer Robert Cornelius in 1839, the very same year that Fox Talbot developed the negative-positive process. This shot was probably taken with the help of an assistant, but as early as the 1880’s cameras were available with self-timers to allow the photographer time to press the shutter release and then get into the shot. In addition, the development of long cable releases which enabled the photographer to operate the camera from a distance allowed further opportunities to take self-portraits.

These early self-portraits relied upon long exposures and therefore tended towards formal, posed portraits. They were also expensive and time consuming to set up, so generally not taken on a whim.  Early self-portraits were serious affairs.

Not so selfies. Even the name implies a flippancy that would have been unthinkable to the early practitioners of photography. The selfie allows us to show ourselves as dynamic, evolving individuals, on the move, leading interesting lives and sharing those lives with other interesting people.

There is a deeply egoistic element to the selfie. Affirmation from friends (both real-world friends and social media friends) builds and reinforces a sense of worth. The selfie taker says to the world (or the tiny fraction of the social media world that includes their ‘friends’), ‘Look at me now. Look how interesting I am. And I think you are important enough to share my important life with you.’ When the ‘likes’ flood in, the self-importance of the selfie taker is reinforced, and even the ‘haters’ comments’ mean that you are important enough to warrant a comment, even if it an unpleasant one. Either way, you are important enough for people to respond to and the selfie allows the taker to actively express their online identity, with total control over which images are to be uploaded, and which are to be rejected.

Again, there is nothing inherently novel about self-centred, self-edited self-portraits. The most famous self-portrait photographer in undoubtedly Cindy Sherman, and certainly her massive commercial success speaks volumes about the appeal of the genre to collectors of her work. The Sherman approach is very different from the contemporary selfie. Each image is a carefully crafted piece of art, with a huge amount of preparations needed to create her unique and often disturbing images.

The selfie seems a rejection of seriousness, a rejection of the conventions of photography. The selfie taker is largely freed from the conventions of the traditional photograph, the genre creating its own rules as it goes.

It’s also effectively free. In the days when the only option was film, taking each photograph could have been a deeply considered process. With only 24 or 36 exposures on a roll of film, that put an effective limit on the amount of experimentation a photographer could play with. As cameras required manual focus (not to mention considerations about exposure control), Waving the camera around in front of your own face in the (largely vain) hope that you would get a useable image was not something that most photographers would do. Then, of course there was the expense and wait to get the film processed to see what the result of your efforts have been.

The selfie allows control (although not usually of the camera itself) and an immediate, often silly snapshot of the events of our lives. The fact that you can immediately view the results means that most shots can be reproduced over and over again until the taker gets the desired result. As soon as selfie perfection, although that may only mean a duck-faced pout, has been created, then it can be shared, and reshared.

Art it may not be, but the selfie represents an iconic representation of our times. Future historians and curators of the early twenty-first century will have a wealth of self-generated images to build a picture of our lives in a way that has been rarely captured in the past.

2013 has undoubtedly been the year of the selfie. As a term, it has been officially recognised as a legitimate word and included in dictionaries for the first time. It is also indicative of the way photography is changing and perceived (see XXXXX chapter). For the spontaneous selfie taker, quality is of minor importance compared with convenience. The best camera in the world is the camera you have available at the time, and a vast number of people who would only dig out their ‘real’ camera for holidays and special occasions have access on an immediate basis to a mechanism for recording the world – both in still images and in video.

As such the use of mobile ‘phones as cameras can been seen as a great democratising force in society, but that force can one of ‘lowest common denominator’. As more and more people are using their ever present ‘phones, it’s perhaps inevitable that photographs are taken of people taking selfies.

While it is one thing to see photographs of President Obama’s daughters duck pouting and grimacing into their ‘phones, it is jarring to see Obama and Cameron grinning inanely either side of the Danish Premier, Thorning-Schmidt as the memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Perhaps forgetting that there might be other cameras pointing at them, the selfie led to inevitable criticism.

This however, was a minor social gaff compared one in the USA a few days earlier. As police tried (successfully) to talk a suicidal man down from the Brooklyn Bridge a sizeable crowd gathered on the banks of the river to watch. After approximately twenty-five minutes a member of the crowd produced her ‘phone to snap a quick selfie with the potential jumper in the background. The irony of this action was, of course, that she was photographed in the act.

Although the anonymous selfie taker has been demonised as the most selfish selfie taker to date, it has also been noted that she did not gain any financial advantage from taking the shot – unlike the photographer that photographed her and sold his photograph. The story, in the New York Times, is not one of the potential suicide, but of the selfie taker. A minor incident in one person’s life is considered more newsworthy than a major calamity in another person’s.  We might even be led to question if the ‘real’ event would have got more than a by-line if a New York Times freelance photographer had not been on hand to record, well, not the potential suicide, but rather the perceived social gaff of the selfie taker.

In a much more calculated way, the Tumblr group,’ Selfies at Funerals’ deliberately seeks out those who have  taken selfies in the most inappropriate of settings. Grinning and pouting, there seem to be a large number of (mainly very well dressed young people) who are more than willing to share their grief with the social world. This groups seems to have run it’s natural course; as the founder of the group posted, with Obama’s selfie at Mandela’s memorial concert, their  ‘work here is done’.

This begs the question of the future of selfies. As the Tumblr group is seen by its originators as having run its course, will the same be true of selfies? Inevitably, the answer has to be yes. At the same time as selfie is being printed into dictionaries, the most prolific of selfie takers, teenagers, are declaring to the world that social media such as facebook is now officially dead. Facebook is now the social norm, and teenagers are abandoning it in favour of cruder social media that does not have the user-friendliness of facebook.

Remember Myspace?

In an increasingly fast paced technological world it would be unwise to assume that any form of media or communication is safe from the march of time. As users turn away from established social media, the content that they have invested in heavily in terms of time will be lost. Will they be able or willing to replicate that on a different social platform?

Probably not.

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