Finding the Self in a Selfie
by Adam Gopnik
October 29, 2015 – The difficulty, always, in our current run of crazes is telling what is potent—real and likely to change consciousness—from what is just passing and transient. Mood rings, pet rocks, and even Atari graphics all ended on the Island of Lost Signifiers, but talking pictures, self-written marriage vows, and Napster did indeed change the way our minds turn. They demand extended analysis even if they resist it. “Me,” a show of photographs at the Ricco Maresca gallery, in Chelsea, open through Saturday, sets itself the task of answering, or at least—art supplying no answers—addressing, a question of the moment: Is the selfie—those newly omnipresent photos of ourselves, taken with our own little palm-fitting cameras—merely a genre of informal self-portraiture, as old as the camera and as many-sided, or is it visual crabgrass, covering over and crowding out deeper investigation of who we are?
The usual complaint against the selfie is that it substitutes terrible narcissism for what once was a sense of seeing things for their own sake—that what matters to the eye of the iPhone camera is not the place I am in but the fact that I am in it. The need to memorialize the moment takes precedence over living the actual experience. But have we not always been inclined to “take” our faces to preserve our upbeat moments? The show begins with a lovely collection of Photomatic selfies from the nineteen-forties and early fifties—those once ubiquitous images, made in photo booths with curtains, almost always on a high-hearted impulse. They show single sitters, or more often couples, joking and smiling and horsing around for a robotic camera. (One then waited apprehensively outside the booth for the little card of images to emerge. It was always hard, fitting two people in the frame; one member of the couple always slipped out, just a little.) The Photomatic images are a wholesome reminder that the informal self-portrait, produced by a cheap technology, is, now as then, an expression of the passing ecstatic moment—of being glad to find ourselves where we are and wanting to see how we looked while we were, briefly, pleased with ourselves. The self-portrait, in the hands of a Van Gogh or a Lucien Freud, might be an instrument of many-layered self-exploration; the spontaneous photographic gesture has always been an instrument only of a brief clarion call of ego—I am here, and I am happy.
The show mixes high-art photographic selfies—including a sprightly one in which Brâncuși objectifies himself as a light bulb, and ghostly ones by Vivian Maier and Berenice Abbott—with vernacular imagery. But what is it that distinguishes the true selfie—even the selfie before it knew itself, the selfie from the past that was not yet so called—from the traditional self-portrait? Two images by masters lend a clue. One, by the great Weegee, shows a police photographer posing a suspect who is seated in front of a white background, his mug-shot number pinned to his lapel. What is astonishing is how docile, agreeable, how mutual the transaction is—even in the municipal hoosegow our urge is to play along, to want to see what we looked like. The urge to be photographed—the desire to be photographed, and to look good in the photograph—can be stronger even than the urge to protest our own innocence or to get up out of the chair and head for the exit. A selfie is a mug shot we ask ourselves to sit for.
The other, by the ever-prescient Andy, is a Warhol Polaroid from 1978—and surely the now forgotten Polaroid, which promised an instantaneous picture, was the real creaky-kneed grandfather to the cell-phone photo. In it, Warhol simply blows his nose beneath his weird silver hair and looks out balefully at the camera as he does. It’s a non-moment seized and treated as a moment, the camera allowing us to be more effortless in our self-capture than any earlier medium could. Warhol reminds us that the selfie is implicit in the cell-phone camera’s ease as much as in its omnipresence—that we, in effect, pay nothing for each additional image we take, and so we don’t have to be choosy about our remembered moments. Blow your nose or blow your horn—it’s all the same.
Not narcissism but an odd kind of promiscuity of the self seems to be the causal portrait’s common energy: you can take a picture any time you want to, and make any moment last. The urge is not to project the self out of vanity but to monitor it, to put an EKG on it and continually check its vital signs. Narcissus stared at himself in the river; a Narcissus who runs down the riverbank finding new locations from which to stare might not be admirable, but he would at least be energetic. The era of the selfie encourages the self to get around. It’s something.
The most astonishing artist in the show, and perhaps the most significant, is therefore a twelve-year-old girl named Kaia Miller, who is sort of a “Gossip Girl” version of Cindy Sherman. In a permanently running and recycling video, she shows her seemingly infinite collections of manipulated self-portraits: Kaia doubled, Kaia in a dress cleverly made to look like a waterfall (or, rather, “wearing” a waterfall cleverly made to look like a dress), Kaia stroboscopically shown bending on her own bed, with one Kaia bleeding, Muybridge-like, into the next—a Kaia with rose-print hair and a Kaia posed to look like a character on “Pretty Little Liars.” In between these Photoshopped selfies, she talks, effortlessly and energetically and endlessly, about … herself. It is impossible not to admire the energy she puts into her self-creations: the “reinvention” that people used to dutifully admire in Madonna each year Kaia produces every day. And if we feel a little dubious about that much self-reflection, well, Kaia would doubtless agree with Philip Roth that the goal of the artist who writes, or shows, herself is not self-glorification but self-knowledge, even if that knowledge is, as Kaia has learned, that you can always spin out one more self. The relentless appetite for selfies that, in a Kim Kardashian’s hands, is belittled can become, in the hands of someone so much younger and more ingenuous and earnest, a reminder that self-showing is not necessarily selfish. It can be a form of self-accountancy, of diary keeping, of journal making, even a sort of charming ritual of daily inventory. Kaia Miller is that rare thing: an artist entirely at peace with, and in love with, her time. You will be seeing more of her, we bet—almost as much as she will be seeing of herself.