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Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Self Portrait

I was traveling these last couple of weeks. One spends, in these episodes, too much time in the company of other travelers, and one of the things other travelers do is photograph themselves in airports. One at least 2 occasions, I observed a young woman examining herself in her phone, making minute adjustments to the lie of hair across her forehead. Clearly in the throes of taking Just The Right Selfie.

I could bang on about the cultural flaws this reveals, but I'm not going to.

Instead I started in thinking about how we think about photographs of ourselves, and what the possibilities are. I am by no means certain I have anything to say except a handful of related observations, but I intend to make those observations. Buckle up.

My constant thesis is that viewing a photograph constitutes in an allegorical but sturdy way a (re-)visit to the time and place of the photograph. You experience something like presence. A photograph of ourself, therefore, constitutes a kind of return to our own past, a moment preserved in the frame from our own personal history. We examine the frame for clues, to help us recall that moment. Sometimes we recall it clearly, and the photo merely cues the recall. Sometimes we don't remember it at all, and will then almost inevitably struggle to reconstruct the moment depicted in the frame, to recall or deduce some fragment.

When we are photographed, whether we take the photo or someone else does, we anticipate this return.

There is, therefore, a substantive difference between being photographed with an expectation of seeing the photo later (selfies, photo booths, portrait sessions, etc) and being photographed with no such expectation (someone photographs you on the street.)

If we expect to see the photograph, or even more-so to possess and control the photograph, we are as the shutter snaps, in that instant, anticipating a return to now. We expect to see ourselves in the photo, to see this moment, at some point in the future. Perhaps only a moment from now, or in a few minutes, or a few days. We pose, to some degree, for ourselves.

The photo-booth is maybe the apotheosis of this specific phenomenon. These are photographs of ourself, several of them, we'll see them very soon, and they are (or can be) private. We pose only for ourself, and given that there are 4 or more frames, we can experiment. We experience a kind of freedom of self-expression. Hence the standard array of funny faces and goofy gestures. It resembles, in a way, prancing in front of the mirror, testing the ways that our appearance corresponds to the way the muscles of our face feel.

When we twist our face into some odd expression, we don't really know what it looks like. We can't see our own face. The mirror and the self-portrait provide a way to connect the physical sensation to the appearance. We develop and refine a kind of proprioception.

At the same time, the photograph provides a return to the past, a portal to that earlier moment, in the way a mirror does not. A mirror shows us the present; a photo, the past.

The more recent the picture (seconds versus minutes versus hours, days, weeks) the more we inspect it for proprioceptive wisdom. As long as we fancy we can recall the way it felt to form that expression, we inspect the results of our efforts. The more distant the photo, the more we struggle instead to remember what was going on, maybe what we were thinking, what our emotions were, or even where and when we were. Still, we wonder what on earth possessed us to make that face, we wonder what physical sensations produced it, usually with an eye to avoiding it in future.

And again, at the moment we are photographed, our behavior in that instant is to a degree shaped by our anticipation of all these things. This is why we mug foolishly in the photo booth, but sit more soberly for the formal portrait. The former is private, "instant", we want to see what we look like when we do this. The latter is more public, and longer term, we want to see what we look like when we're trying to project an air suitable for others.

In all cases, we perform for the camera as if it were a stand-in for ourself. We mug, or sit soberly, in part for our future self, to see what we will look like when we do this.

When we have no anticipation of seeing the picture at all, when someone photographs us on the street or when we notice the CCTV camera in the elevator, much is different. We perform or pose now for a notional audience, an audience that does not include us. We will never return to this moment, but others might. Sometimes we might want them to feel bad, or to like us. Sometimes we hope for this notional audience to admire us.

There is often overlap, to be sure. Our desire to look good might not depend on whether we're going to see the picture or not, perhaps we want to look good no matter what. If not good, then at least respectable. Or funny, or whatever.

Nevertheless when we expect to see the picture, there is an element of standing in front of a mirror; each of us will bring something to our performance, to our pose, on that basis, something which is absent or different when we have no expectation of seeing the photo. And, of course, contrariwise.

The young woman moving her hair slightly to the left where it lands above her eye is experimenting to see how she looks that way. She is exploring the world of possibility in her own appearance, an exploration that is only really possible with the phone selfie and its capacity to let her revisit this moment, this instant of time sitting in the airport, waiting for her flight to board.

And good for her. She looks great.

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