The Art History of the Selfie | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


[MUSIC PLAYING] The selfie is the
recipient of so much hate that I almost feel sorry for it. Often seen is the
surest indicator of vanity or narcissism, the
selfie persists nonetheless. We want to do it. We have to do it. But why? Maybe art history can tell us. People have been making
photographic self-portraits since the dawn of photography. In fact, Robert
Cornelius took this one and wrote on the back, the first
light picture ever taken, 1839. He was wrong, as it happens. There are earlier photographs. But I see his selfie act
as one motivated by need. He was probably working alone
in a room, and the desire to canonize himself as
the earliest photographer, during a time when there
was a bit of a race to develop and profit from
this exciting new technology. But as soon as
there were cameras, people used them to take
pictures of themselves. Photographers took
self-portraits to demonstrate their skills
and sell their services. Both amateur and
professional photographers took selfies to get to
know their new devices, to understand the
optics at play, and to have the startling
experience of capturing one’s own image in a way that
had never before been possible in all of human history. They did this with
the aid of assistants, or alone, as
Cornelius was, quickly jumping in front of the camera,
or with the aid of mirrors, of course, or by holding the
camera at arm’s length– say cheesee– or with hand-held
shutter releases that made things quite a bit easier. Most of the great photographers
took self-portraits. Alfred Stieglitz took
this one in 1907, but didn’t print it until
1930 when he gave it as a gift to his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. His friend Edward Steichen
took these two self-portraits in his studio around 1917. Photographers showed
themselves doing what they do, taking pictures,
developing pictures. One of Ilse Bing’s
best known photographs is of herself, a
brilliant mirror portrait capturing from multiple
angles the moment the picture is taken. We don’t know why Walker
Evans took this self-portrait in his studio in 1927. But perhaps he was
playing around, testing his shutter speed. And a couple of years
later, he took the series in a photo booth, decades
before Andy Warhol did it. Weegee the Famous took more
than 1,500 self-portraits during the span of
his career, some as part of his
distortion series. Photographers involved with and
inspired by Dada and surrealism embraced the self-portrait as
an avenue for experimentation. Erwin Blumenfeld took
this mirror portrait early in his career with
his family surrounding him, and went on to use his technical
expertise in the darkroom to make a series of exploratory
portraits throughout his life. Man Ray took this solarized
self-portrait in 1932, and this one the same
year, purportedly just after his lover,
Lee Miller, left him. A decade later, he
perfected and showed off the half-bearded look. And Berenice Abbott warped
the photographic paper under an enlarger to
create this self-portrait. Imogen Cunningham took
experimental self-portraits throughout her
life, from this one, taken in 1909 of her dressed
up as if it were 1863, to this one with her
camera in the 1920s, another with her grandchildren
in a fun-house mirror, and one near the end of her
life in a broken mirror. Vivienne Mayer and other
chroniclers of the street and American Life in
the 1950s and ’60s often couldn’t resist
snapping their own image as it reflected in shop windows,
hubcaps, and security mirrors. Lee Friedlander captured a
number of images of himself in windows and on the
road as he documented the American
landscape of the ’60s. These pictures not
only show us a bit of what life was
like at the time, but also firmly attach the image
to an individual point of view, intricately tied to the
person taking the picture. The 1970s saw a variety of
approaches to self-portraiture. Ana Mendieta’s self-portraits
were performative, documentation of
actions in which she immersed her body in nature. Adrian Piper became her
masculine alter-ego, the mythic being, and tested
how the world responded to her and she to the world. Francesca Woodman took this
spellbinding self-portrait when she was just 13, and
in her short life, produced image after image,
including herself in the frame, but often obscuring
her presence, giving us pictures that are
intimate, but enigmatic. Hannah Wilkie put
to use her own body to question notions of
femininity and sexuality, posing like a fashion model
while her face and body are scarred with chewing gum
shaped into tiny vulvas. Robert Mapplethorpe explored
gender and sexuality in two self-portrait
photographs from 1980, appearing in one wearing
makeup and in another as a hyper-masculine greaser. And Andy Warhol
not only made use of the photo booth in the
’60s, but turned the camera around on himself
again and again, exploring the malleability
of his own identity, his power as a brand, as
well as his mortality. Cindy Sherman began
her incomparable parade of self-portraits with
a series for which she enacted characters
observed on a bus ride. A few years later
came untitled films stills, her landmark
series for which she took on a variety
of guises, appearing as fictional characters
caught in filmic moments. Sherman has gone on to create
a tremendous body of work, all positioning herself
before the camera to examine a wide
range of concerns– class and gender identity,
the nature of representation, our fears and
revulsion, and aging. Tseng Kwong Chi made
over 100 images, posing in front of iconic
spots in an invented persona he called his Chinese
ambiguous ambassador. A number of artists have
adopted related strategies, like Yasumasa Murimura, Nikki
S. Lee, Yinka Shonibare, and Kallup Linzy. In the ’90s, we see
Carrie Mae Weems blend fiction and autobiography,
sitting at her own kitchen table in a series examining
tropes and stereotypes of African-American life. And we also see Catherine
Opie present her own image alongside portraits of other
members of San Francisco’s queer subculture. She shows herself
not as an observer, but as part of the
group she’s portraying. Approaches like Nan Goldin’s are
deeply personal and diaristic. This photograph marks the end
of her slide show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” that
tells the story of her life at the time, including her
passionate and ultimately abusive relationship with a man. Jen Davis began a long-term
self-portraiture project in 2002, exploring
her relationship with her body, men,
and the camera. Ai Weiwei took
several self-portraits while living in New York in
the 1980s, documenting his life and friends far before he
discovered social media and used it as a
massively effective tool for communication, overcoming
censorship, and as testimony to his own mistreatment. And here’s where
the lines really start to blur between the
photographic self-portraiture we’ve seen for over a century
and the selfies of today. I’ve shown you only
a brief sampling of the enormous history of
photographic self-portraiture, and one heavily
skewed toward artists working in America and Europe. The ease with which we can
now take pictures of ourselves and share them has changed
the game considerably. But in my mind, the basic
motivations and potential for expression have
stayed the same. I am not saying all
selfies are art. Dear God, no. But I am saying that there’s not
really a difference in nature between a photographic
self-portrait made by an artist and your run-of-the-mill selfie. There are a ton of really bad,
deeply unfortunate selfies out there. But the quality of the
average technology many of us carry around in our
pockets is astounding, and has made a fairly democratic
medium even more democratic. Whether you call it particular
selfie art or not is up to you. Selfies function in
many different ways. They affirm. They reveal. They conceal. They question. They subvert the male gaze. They bear witness. They put the control in
the hands of the subject. You decide how and when and why. We can’t know, and will never
know the exact motivations behind most selfies. But that’s what images do. That’s what they’re for. They give us a glimpse. They show us a face, a certain
person in a place and time. And it’s up to us to read
them and decode them. What I’m trying to say is
that a selfie has been art and can be art. There’s great
potential and resonance in this form of making. And I, for one, don’t think we
should be apologetic about it. Go forth and selfie. Just try to do it well. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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