Monday 6 March 2017

Picture Post #22 From Snapshots to Selfies

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

USA, early 1900’s, photographer unknown. (Pvt. Collection).

Today the talk is all about ‘Selfies’ and the rise of ‘look at me’ photography, but the early Twentieth Century snapshot also raised many questions about how we like to think of ourselves, how we see our place in the world and, hence too, the universe. The arrival of box cameras and chemically coated film in the roaring American century, provided a cheap medium in which not only to share beautiful scenes, but also to depict ‘the ugly’, the immediate, the unimportant, in playful, short, spontaneous resemblances.

Nonetheless, in a world of Selfies, we all too easily overlook how things only really become banal when the acceptance of a message is taken from within a specific context and is not granted further thought.

Goethe's gentle observation that beauty can never obtain clarity about itself, and that things remain true in their nature when veiled, seems to be briskly wiped away by the deceptive promises of modern photography to depict spontaneous resemblance. Instead, when we view pictures like the one above, we have to imagine ourselves a bit back in time, when being portrayed was as unusual for the ‘common man’ as eating caviar.

If, within a visible document, we can do this, then the urge to express a voyage towards self-interpretation simply explodes. How do we like to think of ourselves? How do we see our place in the world, and hence too, the universe? The ‘snapshot’ provided the possibility to create a culture of your own, and one might even come to think, for the American citizen, a way to break away from older, European traditions, escaping through the eye of a lens.

One of the main distinctions the snapshot has made, although it may have slipped into our consciousness without being noticed, is the difference between resemblance and semblance: to be like, and to seem like. If there is one thing about the snapshot we cannot ignore, it is this insubordination concerning the fragile commitment to semblance.

Nor is it only our perception about beauty that is transformed. The truth about what we see becomes more real than ever in the represented moment, and this taste of realness, of revealing immediacy, helps create a social conformity built from identification. Today’s ‘Selfies’ are the outcome of something that is now mainstream yet started from a movement more than a century ago, that ever since has not only been shaping us, but changing us, too.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Tessa, for a thoughtful post. It seems to me that the selfie is not the same as the old snapshot. Perhaps more self-obsessed rather than wanting to represent an idea?

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Thomas,

You have to thank Martin too, after all, we are doing these posts together!

When one looks at snapshots they sure have a different ’soul' than the recent selfies. People were still dealing with a medium that was kind of special and to wait for processing and printing, gave photography another flair. However, to swiftly register an image has influenced enormously our perception. Imagining myself back in time, that must have been a great moment. There is this spontaneity that raises so many questions and possibilities. At the end of the 19th century, certain paintings by Degas seem influenced by the snapshot; the accidental composition, the fuzziness... but of-course, the medium in such occasion was used to develop creativity. Many artists did use the snapshot for that purpose, photographers and non, to develop insights about perception.

Maybe kodak played a tricky game by launching a camera that became accessible to almost everybody within a rather short period of time, like telephones are used as camera’s today. In my (critical) opinion ‘we' did not take out what was offered by such a possibility, namely to question, experiment, and to experience what images are. The snapshot did, partly, but the selfie pleases ourselves and this is self-gain (in one way or another). A full commitment to identity is false, for we are (maybe mostly) what we do not think we are, and could the quantity of photography and the selfie of today, not profoundly made us notice, how fragile this whole entertainment is?

In the picture above, the man might criticise society, or at-least the option is left to move beyond the portrait, but in the selfie there might be written: nobody matters, but me. An idea of self has become of such serious matter, to believe in the image one sees, all that images hand to us, is neglected indeed by, as you mention Thomas, self- obsession. Maybe because between the raise of the snapshot and today, voyeurism, journalism, art, digitalisation (etc.) has been focused on profit (wether financial or as self-enhancement) rather than to hand possibilities to bring the image to an idea of semblance, to show us how fragile our interpretations are, to doubt what we see and how we have un-learned to live through the image; that we are there for the image and not, that the image is there for us.

docmartincohen said...

Thank you Tess for those thoughts about art and artists...

Yes, Thomas, the picture is not really a 'selfie' - but it surely raises similar (and profound) philosophical questions: what does it mean to be the subject - and the object?

Post a Comment