Ideas about the Contemporary Role of Photography within Digital Culture and Artistic Practice | Melanie Bühler | Monday, 20.04.2015

Remnants of the Index: Hanging on to Photographic Values – The Selfie

My last two blog posts, entitled Remnants of the Index: Hanging on to Photographic Values, will each focus on the legacy and the importance of iconic photographic values. The first does so through a discussion of the selfie, while the second considers the installation shot.

Photographs have long been praised as kinds of images that are the most immediate, direct and truthful. Following the argument, perhaps most famously articulated by André Bazin,1André Bazin and Hugh Gray (trans.), “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp. 4–9. that as imprints of light they directly reflect what is out there and thereby circumvent human interference, they have been heralded as pure imprints of reality. Whilst this was arguably never truly the case – as an image is always the product of a human intervention, however minimal – the developments I described in my previous posts have further undermined the validity of this statement. I have argued that photography is, now more than ever, a layered process in which the photographic moment merges with all kinds of other processes, applications and protocols, resulting in a hybrid format and an array of “visualizations.” Furthermore, I have argued that with the digital image, a shift has occurred from the single image to a set of image relations. Nevertheless, and this is the topic of my last two blog posts, the contemporary photographic image in all its networked modularity is still treated as a classic analog image in the sense that specific values connected to the idea of indexicality continue to inform how we interact with images. In specific ways, the idea of a special, indexical relationship between the image and its referent continues to live on, even though it is clear that this relationship has been disturbed by filters, manipulations, software applications, tags and other technologies of modulation.

Indexicality, in this sense, has diffused into a set of expectations and rules connected to certain image genres as they have evolved as part of online culture. This clinging to traditional photographic values is exemplified in different ways in two image genres that have emerged in recent years: the “selfie” and the installation shot (the contemporary way to document exhibitions). Whereas with the selfie the traditional photographic values of immediacy and intimacy live on, the installation shot stresses the photograph as an objective, representative image to the extent of having erased all traces of human involvement.

The selfie can be regarded as a prime example of what Sven Lütticken calls “general performance”;2Sven Lütticken, “General Performance,” e-flux journal 31 (January, 2012): the current normalized imperative to work at our lives while living to/through work. Everything we do can potentially turn into a future investment, given that opportunities can arise at any moment as long as you make sure you are present and connected. Seen from this perspective, the selfie assures us of our networked presence. It proves that you are there, looking good and ready to be part of the image flow by contributing your most essential assets, your face and body – eager for recognition, likes and shares. The selfie has become the most common representational image format online in the ambivalent reality of the internet, marked by the inability to properly distinguish between labor and leisure, producer and consumer and using and being used.

Immediacy and intimacy are key features of the selfie. In order for a selfie to be successful it needs to be personal and authentic. Defining the genre is a craving for the intimate relation between the device and the depicted subject, usually the owner of this device. This is literally exemplified by the distance between the device and the subject; the camera is always no more than an arm’s length away from its subject (unless taken with a selfie stick, but even then the camera remains relatively close to its subject). The value of the selfie is directly connected to the intimacy and associated authenticity it suggests, despite the fact that this image genre is highly stylized and follows distinct aesthetic patterns and rules.

This is made apparent in one of the most recent projects by Los Angeles/London and Gijon-based artist Amalia Ulman, which is titled Excellences & Perfections. Starting in the spring of 2014, the artist regularly posted images of herself on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. The images exclusively refer to a specific aesthetic sensibility and tone: a seductive, erotic girliness in cream-colored shades. As she continued to post images, a narrative started to unfold with Ulman presenting herself as a young woman in LA drawn to expensive brands and luxury. The pictures show the artist with shopping bags, lingering in bed, presenting her body in underwear, trying on outfits as she allegedly gets ready for dates – against a backdrop of hotel rooms, lobbies, elevators and bathrooms.

Excellences & Perfections (29083) Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, 2014, performance on Instagram.
Excellences & Perfections (29084) Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, 2014, performance on Instagram.
Excellences & Perfections (29085) Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, 2014, performance on Instagram.

After a period of four months and having reached more than 60,0000 followers in the process, the artist revealed that the project was a staged performance, an artistic intervention in which she made use of her social media accounts to present the fictional narrative of a young woman.3Very briefly summarized: the feed tells the story of a young woman moving to LA, becoming a sugar baby and then finally going back to her family. Ulman explained the project during a recent Lunch Bytes talk in Amsterdam: While this project is ripe with controversial content that comments on how (female) subjectivity and embodiment is currently presented, branded and valorized online, Ulman recently told me that the single thing that upset her followers most was the fact that her image feed was staged. Undermining the essence of the selfie, which is to say the sacred link between proximity, intimacy and truth-as-correspondence, was apparently an act judged more shocking and offensive than any affront to the heterosexist male gaze or to capitalist (self-)exploitation could ever be.

The desire that the photographic image be truthful and authentic is thus especially pronounced in the kind of self-confessional pictures that dominate our image feeds. Moreover, it is also increasingly demanded by the platforms that organize, contextualize and proliferate the images posted online. Facebook and Instagram want us to identify ourselves in a way that can be visually coded into a well-defined consumer profile. According to their business models, uploaded images make up an important part of the daily information flow that generates their advertising revenue. Identity, by this logic, is tied to a profile that can be linked to consumptive patterns, in order to target us more precisely in the future.

In her performance, Amalia Ulman stages herself as a “mediated subject of capitalism, that is a subjectivity thoroughly entangled with the technologies and economic structures”4Erica Scourti, The Female Fool: Subversive Approaches to the Techno-Social Mediation of Feminity, MRes Art: Moving Image, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London, June 10, 2013. of our time, as the London-based artist Erica Scourti recently theorized in reference to a strand of artistic works to which Ulman’s performance could be connected. Within this performance, the photographic image and especially the selfie play a crucial role as agents for immediacy, intimacy and truthfulness.

Referring back to Bazin’s description of the expectations towards a photograph with regard to its authenticity, it becomes clear that in the age of the digital image, Photoshop and Instagram, this attitude has not changed significantly, especially in regard to the selfie: “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.”5André Bazin and Hugh Gray (trans.), “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer, 1960), p. 8. The point to make here is: despite the increasing malleability of the digital image and the growing importance of the relation between images (an argument elaborated in my previous blog post and also exemplified by Ulman’s work), the example of the selfie shows that its value is still largely derived from a belief in the direct, authentic and truthful relation between the image and its subject. This is further emphasized by its socio-technological framework, in terms of temporality (the speed with which it can be uploaded and the directness this suggests),6This is also stressed by the platforms that circulate selfies. Instagram, for instance, always indicates how long a picture has been posted. in terms of proximity (the physical distance between device and subject) and in terms of context (Instagram and Facebook connect the images to the specific, standardized profile of an existing person).