In Praise of the Ugly Selfie

When are selfies a form of artistic expression and when are they an act of self-indulgence?

Nikki Tate
May 10 · 5 min read
Staring Contest with a Selfie [Nikki Tate]

Painters have long used the self-portrait as a way to practice looking hard at themselves and interpreting what they see before them. Think of how many self-portraits artists like Van Gogh or Rembrandt produced over their lifetimes and tell me there’s no value in exploring your own face as you search for ways to tell a story with an image.

Perhaps more significant than whatever the final tally might be (someone could shoot a gazillion digital snapshots aimed up their nostrils and never come up with a great photograph), the way an artist chooses to depict themselves reveals a lot about their personality, approach to art, and sometimes their environment and certain objects they find significant enough to include.

One of the 90 estimated self-portraits created by Rembrandt. Did that make him a narcissist? Or someone serious about practicing his craft? [By Rembrandt — : Home : Info, Public Domain,]

Some of my favorite paintings done by my father are his self-portraits (accomplished by spending many long hours looking into a mirror suspended just off the side near his easel). They are him, certainly, but they are not exact likenesses — they are studies in portraiture, the human face, and, when looked at as a series, a story of a life being lived. In an early self-portrait, he is clean-shaven with a neat mustache. In more recent paintings he sports a full beard (something which still catches me by surprise as Dad only started wearing a beard in his 70s…)

E. Colin Williams, Self-portrait

This piece was the last self-portrait done before Dad grew his beard. What is striking to me about these drawings and paintings is they completely lack any ‘say cheese’ quality ubiquitous in snapshots taken during family gatherings, vacations, or when friends get together for an evening of fun. I suppose that’s partly the result of having to sit and stare at yourself long enough to actually do some sort of hand-crafted rendering. Grinning like an idiot for hours and hours would surely cramp cheek muscles and quickly transform a big smile into a pained grimace.

Do Selfies Have the Potential to Be Contemporary Self-Portraits?

Many selfies do take the form of a grinning snapshot (there are plenty out there of people snapping self-portraits with an off-kilter Eiffel Tower in the background). Or, they may have a ‘look at me and this cool thing I’m doing with this awesome other person!’ flavor, but there are also lots of selfies out there that explore who we are in our everyday lives. Felfies (self-portraits of farmers, often posing with livestock) are self-portraits of farmers from around the world in their natural environments doing their thing.

Back when I had my farm I took this felfie

In this New York Times piece, James Franco suggests the selfie is a way to introduce ourselves to the wide world and for celebrities to feed their hungry fans with an endless diet of glimpses into their private lives.

This article looks at the selfie as an art form and coincided with the opening of the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery. [Why, I wonder, are so many of the sample images included with the article taken in public washrooms?]

The selfie as an art form is emerging as a fascinating way to capture how we see ourselves, how others see us, and, often, how we want others to see us.

Selfie in Green [Nikki Tate]
This is my selfie nod to Depression Era photographer, Dorothea Lange.

Older, Crustier and Less Inclined to Primp and Preen

I have been working on a series of selfies that challenge cultural ideas of beauty and aging. The one thing they all have in common is that there is no attempt to enhance my appearance. Instead, I’m searching for ways to create a memorable image that’s of me but doesn’t define me. Like Dad and his paintings, I’m trying to avoid cheesy grins and formal poses.

Sure, I write every day… doesn’t mean it’s always a pleasant experience.
The ghost-walker

The older I get, the more sculptural and expressive my face becomes. Rather than smooth over the imperfections with products created to hide us from ourselves and others, I love to experiment with filters and photo adjustments that reveal and enhance every line, wrinkle, blemish and hard-won feature on my increasingly craggy visage.

One of Dad’s Camino Self-Portraits Shows the Struggle

One of the most revealing self-portraits Dad has ever done was based on a photo I snapped of him on the Camino de Santiago. He was ill with a chest cold when I took the photo and had pretty much reached his limit when he half-collapsed onto a seat in a shelter at the side of the trail. We didn’t know at the time that this would be the last day he’d walk during our trip. The following morning we found and rented a wheelchair and my daughter and I pushed him the rest of the way to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Capturing the tough moments reveals as much of our humanity as when we dutifully record weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and the unwrapping of gifts at Christmas.

Recording our dark moments and capturing the inevitable passage of time also serves to remind us how important it is to take note of and celebrate our moments of peace, contentment, joy, and triumph.

Time Will Tell What Status Shall Be Granted to Selfies

In the end, will the selfie be an art form at which we roll our eyes?

Or, will it prove to be an uncanny way to uncover something about the self that lurks behind the pasted-on smiles of snapshots and which only emerges when you spend some quiet time alone pointing your phone at your face?

I’d love to see your take on the selfie, particularly if you are NOT young, stunning, and able to contort yourself into a spectacular yogic pretzel while perched on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Not that I have anything against the young, the beautiful, or the flexible, but personally, I find the more gritty images of older, battle-worn faces to be those that tell the best stories.

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The Narrative

What’s your story?

Nikki Tate

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Author, creativity coach, storyteller exploring the world, living the dream. Nikki Tate Loves Books Fbook

The Narrative

What’s your story?