Self-portrait or Selfie: A Conversation

May 2, 2014
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In the following exchange of letters, two photographers — Joan Roth and Shulamit Seidler-Feller — engage in a cross-generational conversation about the role the photographer plays in constructing an image and composing a portrait. — S.B.

 

Dear Shulamit,

Growing up, I have always been horrified to see myself in a photograph. Somehow, the images never seemed to look like me, and they rarely captured my inner spirit. I felt I didn’t look good. So, when I became a photographer, I developed a way of seeing my subjects by ingratiating myself into their lives, using my lens as a psychological tool to focus on the deepest depths of their persona. I was hoping to capture an inner essence, a universal feeling of peoplehood — perhaps one not seen before. In this way, the camera became my entrée to knowledge. I used it as a privilege to shape my view of the world through that which I cared about.

Another genre of my work was to capture fleeting moments and feelings, mostly in black and white, by taking spontaneous, intimate portraits of strangers. I used my 35 mm Leica camera, once viewed by professionals as the “little” camera. I would get to know people not only through the eye of the camera, but also through my own outsider eyes and personality.

Joan Roth with granddaughters

These encounters are quite different from the spontaneous, intimate self-portraits of today’s selfies — digital images typically taken at arm’s length with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone.

According to my granddaughter Zoe, who has learned from me the standards, rules, and ethics of classical portraiture, selfies accomplish the same thing, only, they’re not trying to prove anything to anyone: “We take pictures of ourselves, ourselves with friends, as memories. For example, if we’re in a store and see a cute hat, but don’t want to buy it, we just take a picture of ourselves wearing it, and that’s a selfie. The photo might look better if we shot it at a different angle, but we don’t really care. We don’t think the end result is so different from a traditional portrait, and the picture has meaning because we’ve taken it ourselves.”

Until now, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a formal portraitist. Though, like my granddaughter, I, too, envisioned myself as a breakaway photographer, doing my own thing. Like her, I take pride in what I shoot — in recording moods and hope in dreamy tones with artistic lighting that is visually interesting and uses shadowed nuances to reveal character.

As well, my portraits are based as much on contemporary issues in the world that I want to witness as they are on faces and poses that intrigue me. I am drawn to injustices and narrative studies of relationships in a variety of Jewish and other cultures. Over the course of years, I’ve remained committed to observing and recording Jewish life — unchartered aesthetics and undeniable histories.

It seems today that photography is becoming demystified by selfies — a new craze sweeping America. Perhaps this reflects the way analogue photography, not then valued as art, inspired me in the late 1960s. There is already a short selfie movie, produced by the DoveReal Beauty Campaign, and a recent hit at the Sundance Film Festival, about young women trying to capture the perfect picture pose and sharing it on social media.

We really don’t know yet what kind of greatness, if any, will emerge from the selfie craze. However, as my friend and longtime editor Harriet Lyons suggests, selfies will only be taken seriously when artistic principles are applied to this new, somewhat transcendent ability to upload one’s own power, one’s own self-identified-vision on a cell phone. I’m
curious: How do you understand selfies — especially in relation to the taking of portraits?

Warmly,

Joan Roth

•••

Dear Joan,

Thank you for your letter. I absolutely relate to your feelings about seeing yourself in photographs growing up; I felt (and often still feel) the same. You are right in pinpointing the idea of an “inner spirit” as something we as photographers strive to capture in a portrait. I think that, as women, we also cannot deny wanting to look attractive to the outside world in ever-permanent representations of ourselves. It feels like an inescapable and undeniable truth that plays out in my professional life, too, as I often find myself wanting to please the women I photograph and meet their expectations about looking beautiful. Perhaps this desire is at the core of the selfie; for, in no other type of photography do subjects have as much control over how they look and how the final image will appear.

I often think about the photographer Diane Arbus’ comment: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” She, as one of the most significant portrait photographers of the 20th century, really understood the psychology and mythology of making a photographic image. Her work illuminated the lives of people we rarely saw or had access to — but the portraits just made us want to know more and peel back the layers. I think about this contradiction often when making my own work, particularly the self-portraits I have made over the years. I wonder if Arbus would have championed the selfie if she were still alive and working.

My cell phone pushes me to think constantly as a photographer — the same way my vintage Rolleiflex (the same camera Arbus herself used) did several years ago when I carried it everywhere in the streets of New York. Looking down into that camera and seeing my own reflection on the ground glass while I composed the shot always made me feel as though I was, literally, imprinting myself onto the image. Every photograph, no matter what the subject, becomes a self-portrait. Do you think this is so?

Your anecdote about spontaneous black-and-white portraits of strangers reverberates in my mind as I write this. That fleeting intimacy you mentioned is absolutely what we crave as photographers. I think that idea may highlight the universal appeal of the selfie. Anyone with a camera phone is able to document the most intimate (and most banal) experiences and share them instantly. Your granddaughter Zoe is right to say that selfies and portraits accomplish the same thing. The cell phone democratizes photography, as you yourself note, and makes what you once considered a privilege now a right. I think that this reality, in combination with the pressure to document our everyday lives and the control over how we look, underscores the significance of the selfie as a symbol of self-actualization.

Your friend Harriet raises some great points. I’m curious: What artistic principles do you think should to be applied to the selfie? Are there types of selfies more worthy of our gaze than others? Have you made any of your own?

Best,

Shulamit

•••

Dear Shulamit,

I have thought deeply about your questions and I realize that there is no easy answer.

I am not sure the photographs I take are often about me, but there may be some aspect of self-interjection, such as my feelings or what draws me to an image. On the other hand, I’ve been told that my images give voice to the voiceless. I happen to capture a fleeting moment of someone else — not me.

My granddaughters have explained that fake selfies now exist, when the image an iPhone photographer takes and uploads doesn’t really reflect the person at all, but rather reinforces social norms. Such photographer’s
subjects intend to produce an outgoing social media self, a Facebook-objectified self, that they represent with a particular look or facial expression wholly undistinguished from their real self.

Most self-portraits — as selfies or not — convey the “good side” of the creator/subject. We tend to lose sight, though, in these portraits, of the full range of human emotion — the very aspects of expression many photographers throughout the centuries sought to convey.

Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Over the course of history, photographers and painters have established the self-portrait as an art form. The selfie empowers an entire world of people to memorialize images of themselves. It’s more democratic, and anyone can create and transform an image at the very moment of taking a snapshot. And selfies can capture spontaneous, true-life moments in creative ways. I wonder if one must be confident, both as a photographer and as a person, to post a selfie on social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

We have yet to really figure out the selfie’s full value. We know it can be practical, fun, powerful, and a creative tool of self-expression. We have to get used to this new technology to know what to do with it and how to elevate it into a true art form. It seems that thatendeavor will require new art principles. As I’ve reflected on your letter and the cultural shifts, I am relinquishing — or at least reconsidering — some of my photographic principles, such as perspective, balance, the dramatic effect of lighting, and the unadulterated presentation of emotions.

I’d like to hear from you how to make photography more exciting, how to create a new vision for this art form, one that allows us to see in ways we never did before.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you and seeing your own collection of selfies.

Warmly,

Joan

•••

Dear Joan,

Your letter brought up some interesting issues and questions for me. First off, I appreciate your struggle with trying to understand the inherent nature and rules (for lack of a better term) of the selfie — this new and informal interloper in the realm of photography. As someone who spent decades learning and mastering the nuances of traditional analog photography, all of these new applications must feel out of reach at times, as they outpace themselves constantly. I, on the other hand, went to graduate school on the cusp of the turnover from film to digital. While my seminal photographic experiences took place in a darkroom, my photographic identity is very strongly influenced in equal measure by both traditional and digital photography. While I mourned the death of Polaroid film (and celebrated its resuscitation), I know that the future is digital. Our world has no patience for anything less than the instantaneous guarantee of digital technology.

I agree with your sentiments about most self-portraits failing to represent the multidimensional personality of the creator/subject. But I wonder if it is too much to ask that a single image sum up a person, or show that person’s less favorable traits. For me, a single photograph is an invitation, an entry point to speculate and imagine. It needn’t reveal a range of emotions — just enough that renders it poignant for the viewer. “A photograph is a secret of a secret.”

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that you conflate self-portraits and selfies. To me, these are not the same thing. Self portraits are created by individuals who see themselves as visual artists: something with intention, skill, and vision. A selfie is a deep reflection of the democratization of image making, as you yourself point out. I think that, for these reasons, it would be hard to apply traditional artistic principles of balance or perspective, etc., to selfies. They occupy their own space as a key element of social media, and they follow their own rules.

Just recently, I showed my high school students the self-portraits of the photographer Vivian Maier, who herself was one big secret. Her work was never discovered during her lifetime, but, in the last couple of years, it has been heralded as some of the most impactful street photography of the 20th century. Maier was fixated on making self-portraits of herself in reflections: plate glass windows, mirrors, chrome hardware. Her work speaks to the difference between selfies and self-portraits. There is little evidence in her work of the showy bravery that, as you point out, feels commonplace in selfies. She sometimes just shows us a shadow of her own figure. Selfies, on the other hand, seem more willing to expose the subject — as they are performative and often sensationalistic in their orientation.

You ask about how to create a new vision for the selfie as an art form, and I can only respond that we are learning as we go. You noticed that selfies give us access to an entire slice of people’s lives that was previously too curated, too carefully chosen. Perhaps this era is one that invites us to be a bit more reckless and raw.

It is so fascinating to think that you and I, two women photographers living in the same city, and with the same profession, are separated by decades of experience as well as by a point of view. I wonder if our paths will ever cross in person, or if I’ll just be a figure in the background of your next selfie.

Fondly,

Shulamit

 

 

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Joan Roth is a photographer in New York City. Her work has been published and exhibited worldwide.

Shulamit Seidler-Feller is a photographer and educator in New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Reed College and a master of fine arts degree in photography from New York University. Her work has appeared in such publications as the Jerusalem Post, amNewYork, the Village Voice, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Her teaching experience includes work for SAR High School, the Marilyn and Sigi Ziering Brandeis Collegiate Institute, Camp Ramah, and the Center for Alternative Photography. Follow her on Instagram @shulamitseidlerfeller.

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