Looks Nothing Like You: Portraiture and the Selfie

January 04, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about a job they were working on, when they told me a story that made us both laugh.  He’d asked someone for a profile picture to include in an upcoming article and the image they sent back was, frankly awful.  We couldn’t understand how anyone interested in creating an impression would knowingly offer a bad likeness, and not expect some sort of allergic reaction to it.  The obvious answer might be found at the heart of the popular portrait style that we are surrounded by in our everyday lives, the ubiquitous ‘selfie’.  I’m not a fan of this type of portraiture, principally because I’m really bad at taking them.  There’s something about the dexterity required to frame and trigger the phone’s camera that I struggle with.  If I’m with other people, to be fair the only time I bother to take them, my relatively short arms (for a big lad), means that my face always looks massive in the picture.  Even if I successfully navigate all of that without dropping my phone, I never look particularly happy in the finished image. 

Never knowing what to do with my face

Those who know me well, know that I have a ‘resting angry face’, which essentially means that I look incredibly grumpy when my expression is neutral, even if I’m not.  If I’m unhappy about something, my face doesn’t really change, hence my propensity for pulling silly faces during selfies as a way of introducing something different.  During the conversation with my friend, it occurred to me that something had changed in the past decade or so that resulted in the selfie becoming some form of social currency, and that in some cases we don’t seem to care greatly about how accurately they represent our likeness.   This, and concept of the self-portrait, aren’t new of course.  For centuries painters from all genres have, on occasion created portraits of themselves, either as a reflection of their status or a demonstration of their skill for ‘advertising’ purposes.  People were much more likely to pay attention to you if they thought you could paint a good nose.  Portrait paintings were popular with royalty and the aristocracy, because of the considerable expense that went into creating them.  To have a portrait commissioned, you needed money, so naturally the finished product was a way of showing off your wealth to others.  Another reason for its popularity was the creative licence that could be taken through the ‘collaboration’ between subject and artist.  The painting didn’t need to be accurate but instead needed to represent the client as they wished to be seen.  The story of how King Henry VIII accused Hans Holbein of embellishing a portrait of Anne of Cleves to make her prettier is legendary, even though unlikely to be true.  In fact, the King was presented by an idealised portrait of Anne, which was an elegant, dignified portrayal of a potential English Queen, but that masked the other information known about her being dull, bad mannered and apparently lacking in personal hygiene.  The portrait then, is a representation of a person how they wish to be seen combined with the intention of the artist or their commission.  

In the early days of photography, the idea of a technical process that captured light and shadow in a repeatable way, meant that its initial uses were primarily scientific.  The two men credited with its ‘invention’, William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre, were said to be frustrated by their inability to draw, so wanted a way of ‘capturing’ the natural world.  Their processes for making photographs were seen by them to be a faithful representation of the subject, which led to the widely-accepted notion that ‘the camera doesn’t lie’.  When photography started to be used for portraiture in the mid 19th Century, people believed that the picture was a factual representation of the subject.  However, this was total nonsense, because although the process was technically repeatable, the subject could still present a persona and the photographer could choose the precise moment that the picture should be made; the habits of the portrait painters were alive and well in this new medium.  Their complicity made it apparent that the camera actually lies all the time.  The advances in camera technology (lenses, films, flash strobes etc) made it possible for the photographer to represent the subject however they chose to and, with the public’s unshakable belief of the medium being honest, got away with some proper corkers.  Everything from 19th Century ‘ghost’ photography, achieved by double exposure but convincing enough to fool many intelligent people (including one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), to the Farm Securities Administration which yielded Lange’s infamous Migrant Mother in the 1930s, caused photography’s ‘objectivity’ to be continuously challenged.  That’s not to say this is bad thing, as it made it possible for photography to be seen as a creative tool.   Like many photographers, I wouldn’t have bothered with the medium if it was purely aimed at science rather than being creative.  

Within the portraiture photography genre, the variety of combinations where the artist and subject collaborate, don’t collaborate, are aware of each other, are not aware etc., make it an ever-evolving art form.  For example, In 1968 American photographer Tony Vaccaro plotted to capture an image of ‘the real’ Pablo Picasso.   He already knew famous artist, so his plan was straightforward enough; spend time relaxing with him and choose the right moment.  His problem was that Picasso was known to adopt conventional portrait poses whenever a camera was pointed at him, which generally frustrated photographers of the time.   Vaccaro pretended to be uninterested in taking a picture as they drank champagne together at Picasso’s apartment, even pretending at times that his camera was broken.  When Picasso lost interest and lowered his guard, Vaccaro shot his picture.  The result was a picture of a man who wasn’t portraying the persona that everyone might recognise and was more how Vaccaro saw him.  The famous image has since become a representation of Picasso that is adopted by the public, still seemingly believing in the honesty of the photograph.  

If we consider the original points about the selfie in this context, this idea of idealistic representation on the part of the subject and photographer makes sense.  We take selfies to show something, whether it’s ourselves, the people we are with or where we are at the time.  They often celebrate moment our lives, a night out or a holiday, and if we don’t like the result we can simply retake or delete them.  We are both photographer and subject, meaning we have complete control over how the image comes out, self-editing before we show them to other people.  It occurred to me that it doesn’t explain why someone would send my friend an image without caring about how they looked, though.  Perhaps the answer to that question could have something to do with how photography has been democratised in recent years.  Nearly everyone in the developed world has a smartphone with a camera and nearly everyone takes photographs with it.  The proliferation of images on the many social media platforms and their continual refreshing, has led to them having a very short shelf life.  For example, when Snapchat was launched in 2011 it was inconceivable that we would share pictures that were only available for a short time before being automatically deleted.  However, now we have the social media ‘story’ which exploits this temporary existence with the purpose of enticing people to ‘stay tuned’ for more content arriving soon.  Perhaps then, the selfie that isn’t perfect is just one in a long line that may or may not eventually be the likeness we crave; the less-than-perfect versions being discarded eventually because, well, they just don’t matter.  If they don’t matter, perhaps our standards have dropped too because of that throw-away mentality.  Whatever the reason, I now wonder what the great classical portrait painters would have made of this progression.  Perhaps the right collection of Anne selfies would have changed the course of history and let Holbein off the hook.  What I do know is that for now, I think I’ll stay behind the camera. 


No comments posted.