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Identity in High-Res: What Our Selfies Say About Ourselves

I can recall a couple of years ago seeing an old neighbor of mine, an IT employee at Macalester College, in his backyard with a camera and tripod. It was quite a sight: he had on a collared shirt, tie, and jacket right along with shorts and sandals. He went back and forth between the camera and the frame, fiddling with buttons, running into place and and attempting to properly execute several facial expressions without a mirror.

A short conversation gave a reasonable explanation for what initially appeared ridiculous: he was updating his picture for his LinkedIn profile, a photo that needed only be torso-up.

Almost everyone has turned a camera on themself at some point in this day and age. Selfies have become so commonplace that the social media giant Twitter even declared 2014 to be the “Year of the Selfie” after a group selfie tweeted by Ellen Degeneres became the most retweeted post of all time. We photograph ourselves in every situation imaginable, from traveling through outer space to grilling chicken in the bathroom, and it may strike us in the moment that we’re aiming to capture something- but do we ever think about what that something might be?

Thinking Like an Artist

Self-portraiture comes in many forms, some of which seem distant from the quick headshots we find on our Instagram feeds. But artists have been drawing and painting themselves for hundreds of years- think the famous self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh or Albrecht Dürer. The digital photograph is simply the modern-day way to capture one’s portrait.

Self-Portrait Age 28 by Albrecht Dürer

But despite seeming like the haphazard, plebian cousin of history’s great works of art, pictures we take of ourselves share a critical characteristic with all self-portraiture: their appeal is not simply that they capture moments in time, but that they portray carefully constructed versions of our ideal selves to the world.

Think first about Dürer, a German renaissance painter who created many self-portraits throughout his life, the most famous of which is noted for appearing Christ-like — and not mindlessly so. “From an early moment in his life, he was aware of himself as a genius, as an inspired creator,” says Jonathan Jones, an art critic and longtime writer for The Guardian. “One interpretation of his Christ-like self-portrait is that it champions the artist as demiurge, possessing divine power to create worlds.” Dürer had an objective, and in order to accomplish that objective he used composition elements that were typically reserved for paintings of Jesus at the time, deliberately choosing to face forward and paint himself in gold.

These same kinds of things are at play in our photos. The LinkedIn neighbor, for example, had the aim of portraying himself as a polished professional for the purpose of his profile. In order to do so, he carefully picked and chose what was put in the frame and what was kept out, keeping the suit and tie and omitting the summer shorts.

One could argue that self-portrait photography occupies some of the space between the painted portrait and the selfie.

Self-portrait photography, though possessing a blurry definition, is generally accepted as a form of fine art photography where photos are often conceptual and aim to convey some sort of idea.

I consider myself a self-portrait photographer, having stumbled into the art around the age of 13 when I wanted to take portraits and was too impatient to find models. I’ve photographed myself frequently ever since, not to record my life, but to convey my ideas and emotions. In the process, I’ve come into contact with many like-minded people.

“Self portraits can tell so much about a person,” says Erin Blair, another young photographer. When describing her favorite self portrait, a black-and-white silhouette of her behind a wall of icicles, she points to elements that reveal an intimate detail about her personality and how she sees herself. “In this one I am closed off and separated, and it looks like I’m pushing the viewer away, which I do a lot. I push everyone away,” she says. Though this may not necessarily be a positive aspect of herself, it’s something that she shares effectively with the viewer through the intensity of the black and white and through her position, holding an icicle like a bar up to the camera.

Self-Portrait by Shelby Lynn

Likewise, Shelby Lynn likes the ability of self-portraits to convey specific ideas about herself. “I like this because I feel like I look smart and beautiful in this photo and that’s how I want others to see me too,” she says of a picture of her wearing wire glasses and looking pensively into the distance.

In fact, when asked why their favorite self-portrait was their favorite, all the respondents pointed to details that doctored their appearances to emphasize specific aspects of themselves. Angles matter. Lighting matters. Clothing, background, filters, colors, all of these details play a part in how we are portrayed.

And when we whip out our smartphones to take a quick few selfies for whatever the reason may be, we’re bound to factor at least some of them in. Think about it: if you’re a regular selfie-taker, you might have a favorite angle or room or filter, ones that make you look your best. You might post selfies to show off your new shirt or hair color or significant other, to show the world what you’ve got.

Even self-portraits made to be authentic and realistic make a statement. A self-portrait of a woman without makeup, for example, is often a display of self-confidence or an open rejection of social norms, especially if posted online.

The selfie has a purpose and a power beyond the vanity we offhandedly assign to it: it shows us to the world in the way that we want to be seen. Jonathan Jones claimed that Dürer intended his self-portrait to suggest that the artist possessed “divine power to create worlds,” And with the advent of smartphones, we have all become the artist. We all possess that power.

So, grab your tool of choice, whether it’s a smartphone, a camera, maybe a tripod or a selfie stick. Turn it to face you. Choose a backdrop, pay some mind to the intricacies. Where are you? What are you wearing? Who is with you? Why?

Look up, look down, glare straight into the lens, smile, pout, or stare….how do you want the world to see you?

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