Friday, February 24, 2006

Self Portraits

Casey Stetler brought to my attention an article in the February 19th New York Times, Fashion & Style: "Here I Am Taking My Own Picture" by Alex Williams. (I've added the link, though it might require you to set up an account -- which I recommend, as it's one of the few free major newspaper websites out there.) This is meaningful here because when I was mulling over possibilities for the cover of AoaN, Mr. Stetler had suggested the idea of Tyler taking a self-portrait in the mirror. I liked this idea and set about photographing myself above the bathroom sink - only as a stand-in for Tyler, naturally - then tweaked it in PhotoShop to the point where I would hopefully be unidentifiable. It never worked to anyone's satisfaction, and worse,

it is definitely me.

I ended up going with "Variation on Lepicie's Narcissus" for the cover.

Imaginary Audience

What's remarkable about Mr. Williams' article is that he points out that the self-portrait-in-a-mirror is a modern phenomenon. Guy Stricherz, the author of "Americans in Kodachrome, 1945-65" considers it a new genre of photography. In his review of 100,000 photographs from 500 families during that era, he discovered less than 100 self-portraits. That's an incredibly low number considering that nowadays, everyone is doing it.

"In 1960 a person just wouldn't take a Kodak Brownie picture of themselves," Mr. Stricherz said. "It would have been considered too self-aggrandizing."

Hmmmm. So what is so different today? Why are we more willing to self-aggrandize - if in fact such self-portraits can be considered a form of self-aggrandizement - than we were in the sixties?

Obviously, technology is playing a part in this shift. The dollar value of film is not an issue. And the article does note that this is primarily a phenomenon of youth, particularly of adolescents, and their desires to try on different identities. Put the technology in the hands of teens and they have a new way of addressing what Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist, calls their "imaginary audience." However, I think that the elephant in the room here is the incessant flow of media into our personal lives, and more importantly, our self-identities.


Jim Taylor, a Trend Consultant at the Harrison Group, calls these images "self-branding." This is where the influence of the media panoply really starts to kick in - when it becomes acceptable to express the parameters of our self-identity using the language of Madison Avenue.
He added: "They see celebrities expressing their self-worth
and want to join the party."
I have to say, there's something I just don't like about Mr. Taylor. I am suspicious of the context, the method and the intention of any celebrity expressing their self-worth. And there's an ick-factor to that which he refers to as "the party." Even his title, "Trend Consultant," bugs me. But for all that I don't like, I appreciate his unintentional point: the media plays a crucial and invasive role in young people's struggle to form an identity. Indeed, it's a veritable Baby Huey. And it seems to be more invasive than when I went through it way back when.

I suppose that way back when I, too, was trying to sell myself and relied on whatever marketing I had at my disposal to get people to buy. And admittedly the celebrities of the day influenced my self-marketing campaign. While I would indicate annoyance at being told "you look like James At Sixteen (aka Lance Kerwin)" nearly every day of high school, I was relieved that I didn't remind them of the janitor. Much better to have a TV Sixteen-Year-Old to aid in the promotion of the product of you. And not to split hairs, but James was much more preferable than Danny Partridge.


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