narcissism—narcissism is so lonely!—and it’s more about being your own digital avatar.” Chayka adds, “Smartphone selfies come out of the same impulse as Rembrandt’s … to make yourself look awesome.” Franco says selfies “are tools of communication more than marks of vanity … Mini-Mes that we send out to give others a sense of who we are.” Selfies are our letters to the world. They are little visual diaries that magnify, reduce, dramatize—that say, “I’m here; look at me.” 3: Benny Winfield Jr.: self-crowned selfie king. Unlike traditional portraiture, selfies don’t make pretentious claims. They go in the other direction—or no direction at all. Although theorists like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes saw melancholy and signs of death in every photograph, selfies aren’t for the ages. They’re like the cartoon dog who, when asked what time it is, always says, “Now! Now! Now!” 4: Van Gogh: proto-selfie. Photo: ? Corbis. All Rights Reserved. We might ask what art-historical and visual DNA form the selfie’s roots and structures. There are old photos of people holding cameras out to take their own pictures. (Often, people did this to knock off the last frame in a roll of film, so it could be rewound and sent to be processed.) Still, the genre remained unclear, nebulous, and uncodified. Looking back for trace elements, I discern strong selfie echoes in Van Gogh’s amazing self-portraits  —some of the same intensity, immediacy, and need to reveal something inner to the outside world in the most vivid way possible. Warhol, of course, comes to mind with his love of the present, performative persona and his wild Day-Glo color. But he took his own instant photos of other subjects, or had his subjects shoot themselves in a photo booth—both devices with far more objective lenses than a smartphone, as well as different formats and depths of field. Many will point to Cindy Sherman. But none of her pictures is taken in any selfie way. Moreover, her photographs show us the characters and selves that exist in her unbridled pictorial imagination. She’s not there. 3/9
Maybe the first significant twentieth-century pre-selfie is M. C. Escher’s 1935 lithograph Hand With Reflecting Sphere . Its strange compositional structure is dominated by the artist’s distorted face, reflected in a convex mirror held in his hand and showing his weirdly foreshortened arm. It echoes the closeness, shallow depth, and odd cropping of modern selfies. In another image, which might be called an allegory of a selfie, Escher rendered a hand drawing another hand drawing the first hand. It almost says, “What comes first, the self or the selfie?” My favorite proto-selfie is Parmigianino’s 1523–24 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, seen on the title page of this story. All the attributes of the selfie are here: the subject’s face from a bizarre angle, the elongated arm, foreshortening, compositional distortion, the close-in intimacy. As the poet John Ashbery wrote of this painting (and seemingly all good selfies), “the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect what it advertises.” Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good selfie. I like the ones that metamorphose
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- Spring '14
- Universal quantification, Existential quantification, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror