In a defining moment of Nan Goldin’s 1980s slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the lyrics to the Velvet Underground’s classic 1967 song—I’ll be your mirror/Reflect what you are, in case you don't know…'Cause I see you—are heard as slides of women looking at their reflections in mirrors are projected, one after another, every four seconds. Mirrors, a much-used device in Goldin’s magnum opus, serve as constant reminders of our attempts to see ourselves clearly in reflective surfaces, through the eyes of others and, of course, through photography.
Photographic self-portraiture is central to the Ballad, as well. Goldin is one in a long line of artists and photographers who have repeatedly turned their cameras, for one reason or another, on themselves—Edward Steichen, Claude Cahun, Pierre Mouliner, Vivian Maier, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Nikki S. Lee, are a few of the many others.
Interestingly, self-portraits made by photographers tend toward seriousness—they are seen next to cameras, behind cameras, grasping cameras, or looking through lenses. They tend to pose themselves ever so carefully, making sure to remind us that they are searchers of truth rather than of surface readings, that they have mastery over their tools, and that photography is serious business.
The act of self-portraiture, however, has taken a new and more light-hearted twist with the spread of cell phone cameras and smartphones and the rise of “selfies,” a term introduced in 2005 by Jim Krause, a designer, to describe a new type self-portrait phenomenon. Since the term was coined, the production, spread, and popularity of selfies has soared. A recent survey in Great Britain showed that 75% of 18-24 year-olds had taken selfies, and 29% of people over 65 have, too. The phenomenon has become so widespread that the noun “selfie” was added to the Oxford Dictionary in August, and defined as: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
You know what they look like, all those hand-held pictures—made at arm’s distance that show people cocking their heads, testing out goofy or sexy looks, or gesturing with their free hands—that turn up on social media sites. What’s interesting about them is the phenomenon of selfies, if not the actual pictures themselves, and the fact that they are meant to look naturalistic, seem spontaneous, and to communicate authenticity. But once you’ve made or seen enough of them, you know that is not necessarily what they are about.
With their “I don’t care” attitude and as documents of studied nonchalance, selfies seem to speak to self-empowerment as much as to frivolity. You don’t have to look your best in them, just like yourself. The compulsion that drives some people to make them obsessively has been read and decried as evidence of narcissism, but selfies might also be understood as an existential form of bookkeeping, a way to prove, mostly through still photography, that everything, at least for a moment, is ongoing.
Take a look at Selfies at Funerals, one of the stranger Tumblr sites, and you’ll see what I mean. The seeming simplicity and relentlessness of selfies—see me here, see me there—speaks to the many places, situations, and roles we find ourselves in. People may look good in some or bad and even stupid in others, but that’s sort of the point. Selfies, as they accumulate, hint at our complicated selves. “Do I contradict myself?” the 19th century poet Walt Whitman (who posed for a surprising number of photographic portraits himself) asked. “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Of course, there are many other reasons to take and look at selfies as well. You might, for example, take a lot of pictures of yourself because you’re still feeling bereft that, as a second-born child, your parents lost their enthusiasm for photography after taking too many snapshots of your older sibling. Perhaps, as Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, noted, we are fascinated by them since we are neurologically hard-wired to look at faces in real life and in pictures and because “from infancy onward, we are highly sensitive to facial cues and we use them as a way to structure everything from emotion to attraction.”
Perhaps we make selfies because, used to seeing ourselves in reverse in the mirror, the versions we see of ourselves in photographs are disconcerting and selfies help us get over that. We get to see what we look like to others, and learn to get used to and work with that, and in images we would never have thought to waste film or make prints of in the analog era. In the brave new world of democratized and digital imaging, and as self-help guru Stephen Richards has said, “whatever it takes to find the real you, don't be daunted if the rest of the world looks on in shock.”
Some recent articles of interest on the subject of selfies: