4. Here's Looking at Me
Published: 13.11.2013
in the series Marvin Heiferman
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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.

Nan Goldin, Self-Portrait with Milagro, The Lodge, Belmont, MA 1988, 1988. Silver dye bleach print, 69.5 × 101.6 cm. © Nan Goldin/Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

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.

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York, 1979
Silver gelatin print, 91.4 x 91.4 cm
© Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York
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.

The new Pope, Francis, made his first appearance in a selfie last August. Earlier this year X-rated selfies helped to put a flaming end to New York politician Anthony Weiner’s career. Selfies are, with calculated regularity, released by celebrities and pop stars like Rihanna and Justin Bieber who hope to wrest control of their own image from the paparazzi who simultaneously hound and publicize them. And with less fanfare and much greater frequency, selfies define the enthusiastic and everyday practice of people who, while they wouldn’t call themselves photographers, seem to be taking photographs all the time.

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:

Check Out What Van Gogh Knows About Taking a Selfie. It Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity: http://www.mobiledia.com/news/185019.html

Taking a Better Selfie With an Audiovox App

The Tony Blair Selfie That Will Have a Place in History

The Rise and Rise of the “Selfie”

13 comment(s)
Marvin Heiferman
Posted 16.11.2013 at 10:41

A Very Creepy Follow-Up Story on Selfies:

Peter Burleigh
Posted 19.11.2013 at 19:36

Photography has two strands: one is the relation to/transcribing of /signalisation in the world. At play in this domain is the veracity or not of the image, its witnessing function, its construction of a particular mediation of world.

On the other hand there is the question of identity—Who and what is pictured?—Who made the image? For whom? Who sees it?

The technical image from its outset expressed both domains: the applications of photography to science, to detailing the world, cataloguing, sampling, repeating. Think any of Talbot’s repertoire of images in The Pencil of Nature, consider Fenton’s documenting of the Crimean War, contemplate Anna Atkins’ British algae photograms. Yet any of these images is also subjective, affective images: Take, for example, Talbot’s ghostly image of a hand and his assistant Mr Henneman in the J Paul Getty Collection, or Fenton’s devastating Valley of the Shadow of Death (with or without the scattered cannonballs), or the way in which Atkins’ exploitation of form, geometry and colour realizes a newly almost tactile sea.

What is interesting about the selfie is that with two phenomena working hand-in-hand — instantaneity and distributability— the operator who is also the subject can activate both of these domains: verification in the world and affective expression form an image which is no longer a representation of self, but an actual slice of self. That is, the event moment of the selfie collapses to being the sole event itself, and no longer a representation of something else. The selfie does more than convey with a symbolic registration, it actually displaces (if not replaces) any photogenic moment that an earlier visuality represented. Thus in the selfie, the polar axis representation—subjectification shrinks while signalisation—reality expands.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 19.11.2013 at 19:45


Peter Burleigh
Posted 19.11.2013 at 19:50

Here's the direct link to the OED blog in which selfie is announced as word of the year:


Peter Burleigh
Posted 19.11.2013 at 19:48

The selfie gets extracted from social media


Pete Brook
Posted 26.11.2013 at 10:09

So huge is the topic and dissemination of Selfies I’ve been scared to make any declarations about the form, but here goes. Selfie is the OED Word Of The Year. Selfie is a young word. Making self-portraits on cellphone cameras (shouldn’t they be called Cellfies?) is a new behavior. I wonder if some of our fascination, grand statements and dismissal of Selfies is related to our fear and misunderstanding of youth? Certainly, Selfies are made more often by children, teens and twenty-somethings — a recent poll by Samsung U.K. reported that 30 percent of all the photographs taken by millennials are Selfies.

But more than that Selfies are often framed (pun intended) as naive, or as juvenile and manipulative when used by celebrity.

I cannot accept that Selfies should be dismissed out of hand as a lazy mode of photographic production, as to do so would be to refuse to engage with the way hundreds of millions (of predominantly young) people choose to image the world and their place in it. The Selfie form doesn’t make sense to an adult world as the social responsibility or artistic imperatives tied to dominant past discourse about photographic production seem absent. But why should kids step sideways to meet old priorities of the medium when adults could as easily step sideways to meet them where they are?

I contend that Selfies offer some sort of empowerment. However, I’d only be speculating to say how far that empowerment goes. I want to talk about empowerment because I think a lot of the interesting analysis of Selfies has been the form’s relationship to gender and to representation. Photography has an intricate history of double standards when it comes to depicting male and female bodies. This is especially the case in contemporary society where corporations target younger and younger female consumers.

Few people seem to be worried about how boys are using Selfies, but young girl’s use is a cause of concern and gnashing of teeth. It is as if we need to get in early our definition of suitable uses of Selfies for girls. The problem is not cellphone photography and Selfies, but a wider society that disabuses the notion that women’s bodies are entirely their own. If Selfies are a problem, it is only because they are being plugged in to existing patriarchy. Sarah Gram’s excellent analysis 'The Young Girl and the Selfie' sets out the position that girls are set up for the fall when it comes to producing Selfies:

"Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post Selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles? Teenage girls are Young-Girls, are spectacles, are narcissists, are consumers because those are the very criterion which must be met to be a young woman and also a part of society. That their bodies are commodities enters them into economies of attention, and that is where the disgust with Selfies comes from. In an economy of attention, it is a disaster for men that girls take up physical space and document it, and that this documentation takes up page hits and retweets that could go to ‘more important’ things. And so the Young-Girl must be punished, with a disgust reserved for the purely trivial. To paraphrase that beloved of Young-Girl films, Ever After — itself paraphrasing Thomas More’s Utopia — what are we to make of the selfie but that we first create teenage girls and then punish them?"

As we’ve already alluded to in recent blog posts, the issue is not one of production, but one of consumption … and of prevailing social attitudes. For example, the facile and potentially damaging website Hot Dog Legs is how the Internet deals with women turning the camera away from their face. If you ask me, it’s better girls are producing images of themselves rather than the magazines dismembering the female form. Casey Cep argues that even though most Selfies are indulgent, the form can empower inasmuch that Selfies are not shameful in their production now.

The immediate commodity value of Selfies evades virtually everyone. One glaring exception to the rule is the companies that have monopolized the distribution of the form. SnapChat is an App which automatically deletes the video-selfies is transmits between “friended” users. Tens of millions of SnapChat videos are sent daily. Then into the ether. It’s a sign of the times that SnapChat refused a $3 billion buy-out offer from Facebook. THREE BILLION for an App that is mobile only!

To close, I’d like to share some links to artistic and playful responses to the Seflie. The migration of the Selfie off social media and back into the considerations of artists gives us some good jumping off points for further consideration.

1. Cop Selfies (denuding authority)
2. The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery (mocking the art world as if to say, “Images Are Ours!”)
3. Smartphones in art history (supporting Marvin’s point that artists have always been preoccupied with themselves in the world)
4. Art Selfie (a forcably awkward yet deliberate reinsertion of the self into the circulation of commodity art objects)
5. Grand Theft Auto Selfies (needling the idea that all Selfies are false on some level)
6. Famous photos reimagined as Selfies (obvious and effective observation of our transformed media landscape)
7. Feeling Cagey (the selfie assigned as flippant, ever-present, arbitrary).

Finally I want to say that HyperAllergic has had some of the most interesting ongoing coverage of the Selfie phenomenon.

Jonathan Good reports that every 2 minutes, humans take as many photos as all that existed across humanity in the 19th century. As of last year, humans had taken nearly 4 trillion photographs. A good number of these are Selfies. Let’s deal with it!

Marvin heiferman
Posted 27.11.2013 at 14:18

Thanks, Pete for the comments and the links. You're right re: HyperAllergic. Just saw this and the read the HyperAllergic piece referenced, which is definitely worth a look:

The selfie is an aesthetic with radical potential for bringing visibility to people and bodies that are othered. This week we present to you a few instances of empowerment  that we caught via the #feministselfie hashtag on Twitter, which began in response to a post on Jezebel that suggests all selfies are a cry for help. These feminist selfies are important, relevant, and integral to the ongoing conversation around #selfie culture. I recently presented a theory of the selfie , which posits that as we increasingly live in public and that our selfies are our networked identities, connected, refracted, and devoid of context. Those who see us are our mirrors, reflecting how we look back to ourselves and out to the internet world. These selfies and conversation snippets about them on Twitter help us understand who controls the mirror and who’s allowed to make images, including of themselves._Alicia Eler_Hyperallerigic

Fritz Huber
Posted 27.11.2013 at 17:41


Marvin Heiferman
Posted 29.11.2013 at 15:54

Here's a link to a surprising story about an Instagram account that Photoshops selfies if you ask, and sometimes even if you don’t:

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 05.12.2013 at 18:20

Anonymous Woman Makes it on the Cover of the New York Post Thanks to an Ill-Timed Selfie: http://petapixel.com/2013/12/04/anonymous-woman-makes-cover-ny-post-thanks-ill-timed-selfie/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PetaPixel+%28PetaPixel%29

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 10.12.2013 at 21:40

President Obama poses for a funeral selfie and gets chummy with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt but Michelle does not look impressed: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/president-obama-poses-funeral-selfie-article-1.1543188#ixzz2n6ODrp2N

Jessica Chicory
Posted 28.12.2013 at 14:44

Maybe the selfie is simply today's mode of self-reflection?

Posted 30.12.2013 at 11:14

Actor, artist, writer, etc. James Franco on the selfie:

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