the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Selfie

TLI

Is a self-portrait just a face crammed into an iPhone screen, or should it be more?

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE MAY BE NO PART OF PRESENTDAY PHOTOGRAPHY that is more practiced and less understood than the humble self-portrait. This has not always been the case. Turning the lens on oneself was a much less common act until the arrival of mobile phones, at which time the somewhat awkward old technique of setting a timer and jumping into the picture was supplanted by an act that was at once instantaneous and effortless. Ironically, at that point, the sheer numerical proliferation of the selfie overwhelmed the artistic fact that many of us weren’t doing them very well.

The modern selfie has been degraded largely because any variance from the same banal fill-the-entire-frame-with-your-face approach is so rare. We get plenty of features and not much context, a condition that could be called TLI, or Too Little Information. Worse, selfies in the iPhone era are limited mostly to what framing is permitted by the length of the shooter’s arm, causing any surrounding people, places or events to be eclipsed from the shot, rendering an image of “me at the canyon” maddeningly identical to one of “me in front of the cathedral.” Add the distortion of near objects inherent in the wide-angle lenses of many mobiles, and too many selfies conceal or mutate more than they reveal. And don’t get me started on the effects of on-board flash. In short, who are these bloated ghosts?

A portrait is more than a mere record of one’s features. The self is also defined by its surroundings, with the accompanying props of one’s life anchoring that person in an era and providing scale, the staging needed for a complete narrative. Can the face alone sufficiently “sell” one’s story? In the hands of the right shooter, absolutely.But riff through a few hundred online selfies and see how often you behold such gems.

In all too many self-portraits, we mostly settle for mere volume, for blurred and puffy smears of ourselves instead of insights. And, as is often the case when taking pictures is so incredibly easy, we fail to plan. This isn’t vanity, but self-sabotage. The self-portrait needs to slow down, to once more become something of a special occasion.

More information, please..

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THE SHIFTING VEIL

One of Edward Steichen's amazing portrait studies of the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

One of Edward Steichen’s amazing portrait studies of the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND MAGICIANS SHARE A COMMON POWER, in that both of them selectively practice the art of concealment. Now you see it, now you don’t. Both the shooter and the shaman, in their own ways, know the importance of the slow reveal, the smooth manipulation of the viewer’s concept of reality. Best of all, they know how to choreograph and stage visual information. Here, they insist. Look here.

In a lifetime of studying portrait photographers, I have been fascinated by the nearly endless variety of approaches used to convey the human personality/soul in a static image. There are the formal studio sittings. There are the street ambushes of the paparazzo. And there are the shadowy, soft, gently suggestive pictures in which the classic representation of a “face” may not occur at all. This is the blending of revelation and mystery, and it is where portraits, at least for me, genuinely aspire to art.

He Decided To Wait (2016). A self-portrait in name only. Do we have to be the center of attention?

He Decided To Wait (2016). A “self-portrait” in name only. Do we have to be the center of attention?

Some of my favorite images in this area were Edward Steichen’s studies with the sculpture Auguste Rodin, dark, smeary pieces of pure mood in which the great man was reduced to a near silhouette, as if he and his sculptures were forged out of the same raw material. I learn next to nothing of Rodin’s face from these pictures, and yet I learn worlds about his spirit. Steichen reveals as he conceals.

Which gives me an idea.

As I skim through the daily global tsunami of selfies, many of them simple grinning headshots, I see an incredible opportunity to start a completely new dialogue on what constitutes a portrait….or even a face. That opportunity will be squandered if 99% of selfies only look like slightly happier passport photos, rather than a real growth medium for investigating the self, for using the face as a compositional accent, an arranged object within a larger design.

Why selfies? Because the subject is always available. Because the technology of both mobile phones and conventional cameras allows for faster and more far-reaching experimentation. And because re-framing a subject you think you know intimately, merely by shifting where the veil lifts or falls, can be the difference between conceal and reveal.


UN-BECOMING WALDO

There are many ways this photo could be improved. Sticking my face in front of the mountain isn't one of them.

There are many ways this photo could be improved. Sticking my face in front of the mountain isn’t one of them.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU CAN’T SAY IT’S JUST UNCOOL PEOPLE ANYMORE. In recent days (this being April 1st as you read this, and no joke), both the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have joined the growing ranks of public attractions that have decided to prohibit the use of the selfie stick, that telescoping extender wand that stretches the human ego beyond all endurance. Now, the only proofs you will have that your wonderful personage graced a certain locale on a certain day will be (1) memory (2) the enjoyment of the moment, at the moment, and (3) all the other standard-issue, stretch-your-arm selfies you intend on inflicting on mass media in much the way that polluters truck their waste loads way out of town to dump them at remote sites.

If you infer that I am less than suicidal at this news, you infer mos’ correctly. Although you are technically taking a photograph when you use one of these annoying fishrods, you are certainly generating nothing of visual value. You are merely creating a disruptive warp in the travel-time continuum, crowbarring yourself into scenes to…what?….render them more relevant, since you decided to drop your divine butt into them like some kind of Where’s Waldo tribute? Suddenly, it’s not look at this beautiful cathedral. It’s now look at me in front of this beautiful cathedral. Instead of isn’t this an inspiring sunset, we get look at how inspired I was by this sunset.

Please.

I suppose, in the desperate cyber-playdate that social media has become, it was inevitable that the standard selfie, already the online equivalent of roadside litter, would have to metastasize into something even more self-absorbed, and so, on the seventh day, they created the stick, and they said, be fruitful and multiply. Only, you see, a line has been crossed. Your love affair with yourself is now prodding me in the butt, blocking my view, and annoying my mother (and believe me, no one wants that). In other words, your favorite social plaything (you) has become anti-social. And boring.

There is an amazing tradition, among photographers great and small, in the self-portrait. But put some study into it, rather than having it be a reflexive tic whenever you become bored with the rest of us. Approach it with some intent, some technique, or at least more forethought than it takes to flex one knuckle of your index finger. Of the loss of all thinks stick-like at concerts,  Jacqueline Verdier, CEO of Selfie on a Stick, said the festivals were going too far and that the sticks can be used safely. “I think it’s really doing a bit of disservice to the attendees,” Verdier said. “They’re not going to be able to capture the same memories.”

Yeah, Jackie, true that. And they (and we) can do one helluva lot better in the memory department if we’ll just stretch our brains a bit. So go convert your product to a line of premium backscratchers.

Then you’ll at least be performing a public service.


THE UNRESOLVED RIDDLE

I can't really say I know this guy, at least not yet.

I can’t really say I know this guy, at least not yet.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A RECENT PIECE BY TIMOTHY EGAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES decried the latest innovation in Instagram etiquette, a device called a “selfie stick”. As the name implies, the stick is designed to hold one’s smartphone at a modest distance from its subject (me!) allowing oneself to be better framed against larger scenes, such as landscapes, local sights, etc. Egan mostly ranted against the additional invasion of public peace by armies of narcissistic simps who couldn’t be persuaded to merely be in the moment, unless they could also be in the picture. It struck him as a fresh assault on “real”  experience, another example, as if we needed one, of our sadly self-absorbed age.

I agree with most of Egan’s epistle, but I think the real tragedy is that the selfie stick allows us to take more, more, more pictures, and reveal less, less, less of the people that we truly are. Selfies are more than emotionally stunted; most of them are also lies, or, more properly, masks. They are not “portraits” any more than they are steam shovels, as they merely replicate our favorite way of distancing ourselves from discovery… the patented camera smile. Frame after frame, day after endless day, the tselfie tsunami pushes any genuine depiction of humanity farther away, substituting toothpaste grins for authentic faces. Photographs can plumb the depths of the spirit, or they can put up an impenetrable barrier to its discovery, like the endless string of  forced “I was here” shots that we now endure in every public place.

There’s a reason that the best portraits begin with not one lucky snap but dozens of “maybes”, as  subject and photographer perform a kind of dance with each other, a slow wrestling match between artifice and exposition. Let’s be clear: just because it is easier,mechanically, to capture some kind of image of ourselves doesn’t mean we are getting any closer to the people we camouflage beneath carefully crafted personae. Indeed, if a person who acts as his own lawyer “has a fool for a client”, then most of us have a liar in charge of telling the truth about ourselves. Merely larding on additional technology (say, a stick on a selfie) just allows a larger portion of our false selves to fit into the picture, while the puzzle of who that person is, smirking into the camera, remains, all too often, an unresolved riddle.

 


NOTHING IS REVEALED

Julia Margaret Cameron, 19th-century self-portrait pioneer, currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 19th-century self-portrait pioneer, currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE LINES IN ALL OF BOB DYLAN’S PRODIGIOUS OUTPUT, coming from The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, on the John Wesley Harding album. I often pop the phrase into casual conversations where it’s clear that more heat, rather than light, has been generated. Nothing to see here, folks. No new ground has been broken. No fresh truth has been unearthed.

Nothing is revealed.

This phrase came back to me a while back when looking at the raw statistics for Instagram, which indicates that, currently, over 90,000,000 images on the foto-share service currently bear the hashtag “#me”. Call them selfies, call them an epidemic of narcissism, call them banal.

But don’t, for the love of God, call them portraits.  

How has it come to this? How can merely pointing a phone camera back at your own punim, and saturating it with distortion and over-amped flash, pass for a telling testament to who you are, what you dream, what you represent in the world?

Of course, the tselfie tsunami does none of these things. It actually puts distance, if not actual barriers, between your real self and the world, by creating some lifeless avatar to ward off true discovery of yourself by, well, anyone. By comparison, even the four-for-a-quarter snaps of antique photo booths are searing documents of truth.

Photography’s evolution is illuminated by the great masters who stepped in front of their own cameras

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait Of Alfred Lord Tennyson

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait Of Alfred Lord Tennyson

to try to give testimony, recording innovative, penetrating evidence of who they were. Currently, a show featuring one of the medium’s greatest pioneers in this area, Julia Margaret Cameron, is packing them in at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with good reason. Cameron’s attempts to capture herself in not only natural but fantastic settings led the way for interpretive portraitists from Richard Avedon to Annie Liebowitz. Along the way, she learned what to look for, and immortalize, in the faces of others, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, and other bright lights of the 19th century.

Oddly, none of her work was done by crooking her arm 90 degrees back toward her booze-flushed face at a kegger and saying “cheese.”

I’ve written before, in these pages, of the real value of self-portraits as a teaching tool and experimental lab for photographic technique. By contrast, “Selfies” are false faces created to keep the world away, not invite it in. And they remind us, courtesy of Bobby D., of the three worse words of insult that can ever be aimed at any photograph, anywhere:

Nothing is revealed. 

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.