i often find myself thinking about the times we live in, specifically about kids today (kids today!) and the world that they are growing up in. the digital age. i’m of a generation that grew up as many of the things that we use every day were being invented. i remember 8 tracks, vinyl records, cassette tapes, typewriters and word processors and i also remember the first computers. but my generation was still young enough to adapt and to ultimately champion the digital age. one thing that still floors me is digital photography, specifically the cell phone camera. specifically, kids growing up in the selfie age. recently a global survey of 5 major cities found that women are more likely to take selfies than men. it also found that the average age of selfie-takers is 23.
this got me thinking about self-portraits, as opposed to “selfies.” in some ways this is a lost art. it’s lost in the sea of selfies permeating the internet, lost in the end of using actual cameras of any kind in favor of cell phones.
in my late teens and early to late 20’s i took a large number of self-portraits. i did this first using film and eventually using digital cameras. i would dress up and set the photo and then click away until i got something that looked…right. there was always a mystery to this. it rarely felt like holding a mirror up in the palm of my hand and tilting it to a flattering angle. it felt like seeing myself through strange eyes. often times i didn’t relate to the subject of these photos as myself, i appeared…other. this was a deeply lonely and lost period for me. the idea of taking so many photographs of myself seems embarrassing to me now. i am guilty of taking the occasional selfie, although typically it involves capturing a moment with my son.
i read the other day that stevie nicks will be putting out a collection of previously un-seen self-portraits, taken between 1975-1987. as a girl i worshipped stevie nicks, with all of her full skirted twirling. as a teenager i remember seeing some of her self-portraits: pictures of her in full makeup and gowns, in bathroom mirrors and dimly lit rooms. i thought how small she looked, this giant star in a corner of the bathroom of some enormous hotel suite. there was a strange loneliness to them. nicks says that she had wanted to learn to take photographs, and she didn’t sleep at night, so she began taking self-portraits using a polaroid camera with a shutter release cable. she would get dressed up in elaborate outfits, put on makeup, set up the scene, and shoot herself. nicks says there were usually a dozen shots until she got it right. this was, in some way, an early incarnation of the instant-gratification digital selfie. polaroids allowed her to see what she had photographed minutes after she took them. but still, there was something more to it, something in those minutes of not knowing how it would turn out. something in getting the lighting and angle, the makeup and background. something in the process.
self-portraits have a way of conveying moods, moods that women experience in such a large way. a self-portrait can capture loneliness, sadness, happiness, sexuality, vulnerability, self-loathing and vanity, and it can be a way to become someone besides yourself. it is more than just “i feel pretty” or “am i pretty?” while this is all possible through selfies, what seems to be missing is the time lapse that real photography provides. the mystery or juxtaposition of photography is the mirror image that never looks quite like it does in real life. the creation of a photograph provides a creative expression that seems to be lost in the insta-ness of a cell phone generated selfie. taking a photograph and waiting, if only a few seconds to see it on a computer screen or a few minutes to see a polaroid come into focus, has a very powerful and unique kind of anticipation. being alone with a camera allows you to express things you didn’t even know were inside of you. there is a secret to be told through self-portraits.
as a young woman i remember what taking and more than that, seeing self-portraits of other women did for me. i recall pictures of stevie nicks, of francesca woodman or cindy sherman as haunting, incredibly meaningful images that spoke directly to the kind of searching loneliness that young women go through in their teens and twenties. i wonder if young women today and in years to come will miss out on this in favor of tiny little square images drenched in digital saturation.
below are some of my favorite self-portraits from a bygone era.