Monday, November 17, 2014


Just lately the subject of self-portraiture is rather in the air. I seem to be overcoming my aversion to showing photos of myself somewhat.  Admittedly the last one was back view only, but that was partly to show the shape of the jacket better, I don't mind this one either:

And these aren't even selfies; I suppose one of the things about taking one's own photo, consciously, with all the redundancy digital technology allows, is the control over one's features one has, with the option of deleting all but the ones we like. Unlike those snaps that other people take when you aren't aware of it, talking or laughing, the angle just catching the double chin at its most horribly evident, the mouth slack or distorted, or even worse the ones you know they're taking, but without the benefit of seeing ourselves as others see us, so you start holding your face in a certain kind of unnatural fixed pout or grimace.  Or I do anyway, I've seen other people whose faces relax into beautiful repose in front of the camera but I'm not one of them; Tom always laughs when he sees me approach a reflective surface or be approached by a pointing lens, and imitates my pursed lips and widened eyes.

I don't particularly mind the neologism 'selfie', it doesn't seem to me necessarily to carry a negative value judgement. We've long been ambivalent, it seems to me, about 'self-' as a prefix: selfishness, self-centredness, self-indulgence, self-regard, self-satisfaction, self-seeking = bad, but self-preservation, self-esteem, self-reliance, self-knowledge = good. (Self-love and self-consciousness are more opaque). The self-taken photograph is simply something we can now easily do, so we do it. Younger people maybe do it rather more because they're more concerned, for better or worse, with how they appear, more attached to their toys, and youth is pretty of course (no, I know, not more beautiful, nor more interesting, nor superior in any way to age, but undeniably pretty), but none of that's anything new. The camera phone or webcam or whatever now enables us to see how we will appear in the image we make, whereas previously we couldn't see through the camera when we turned it on ourselves, or had to take our reflected image in a mirror, where the camera often got in the way. Though I still can't quite get used to my image in the webcam not moving symmetrically with me as it does in the mirror, but seeming to go the other way, and my newish silvery pre-molar crown which glints when I stretch my mouth, to smile or pretend to, apparently on the other side.

Self-portraiture also seems to be something of a theme because of the Rembrandt Late Works exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which has been mentioned quite a bit around the place. We won't get to see it, but we very much enjoyed Simon Schama's TV preview of it (the link is to a review of the programme, it's been on BBC I-Player but you can't get that outside of the UK and it runs out tonight anyway), and it was also the central topic of today's Start the Week on Radio 4 (that link available indefinitely), which I happened to switch on this morning. An excellent presenter (Tom Sutcliffe,  who I don't remember hearing before but he was quite as good as his predecessors), and four very impressive guests from different disciplines, including Betsy Wieseman, the curator of the exhibition, all of whom have clearly prepared their own contributions carefully and speak eloquently but come across as spontaneous and - dare I say it - unself-conscious, and who have also clearly studied and the other guests' work and show one another great respect. It's a joy to listen to for that reason alone.

It was posited that making the self-portraits the central element of the exhibition's presentation  was perhaps a sign of the times, that at one time it might have been a big group portrait or a historical or biblical scene or whatever that might have caught people's interest.  Self-portraits however, have always been of valued, most artists of the time and before and since did them and their patrons wanted them.  Rembrandt's, it was agreed, were more candid, more frank, more ugly and self-exposing, all the things everyone says about them; his gaze at himself is steady, concentrated, solitary, as opposed to that in Vandyck's self-portraits, where his 'quicksilver glances' seem to be always flitting over his shoulder, anxious as to who else is looking at him and how. But Rembrandt's apparent candour may be deceptive; he was frequently dressed up oddly, and trying out moods and attitudes and expressions - what does melancholy look like, or anger, or despair? Rather perhaps as the self-snapping smartphoners might?

The programme explores the tension between the negative and positive ways in which self-regard has been viewed culturally and historically; Narcissus, it seems, was not always considered a vain and preening wuss: Voltaire's view of him was as a hero of  interiority, the examined life, retreat from worldliness in order to know oneself, even Ovid's original version of the story hinges much more on his unawareness that it is himself he is seeing; it was largely Freud, who seems to have done a lot of unhelpful and unnecessary pathologising of things to a dubious agenda, who identified narcissism as an arrested and unhealthy state. 

And there are many other gems and insights: the received idea that self-regard and hence self-portraiture took off in the 15th century when the Venetians started making flat glass mirrors is probably false, these were very expensive and uselessly small, people were doing it long before that by other means - convex mirrors, polished metal, water. (So we aren't always led by the nose by the material technology...); that people like Montaigne started the trend in ideas which the visual artists took up; Montaigne himself was inspired and encouraged in his own quest for an examined life by seeing an early self-portrait painting by a contemporary royal artist. And then there was this quote from Martin Buber:

We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves

So, take a selfie today in the right spirit, and don't feel bad about it. And if you've any time left after reading this self-indulgent ramble, listen to the programme.


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Great post Lucy and I like the slanted photo of you very much. I concur with all you say about selfies, ancient and modern. I used to take a selfie (it wasn't called that before) for msny years on my birthday as some kind of record of changes, probably hoping that I wouldn't look too different year by year. As time goes by of course the changes are apparent and that's when taling one's own photo, when lighting, angles etc. can be controlled, is definitely more acceptable than random shots taken by other people. The latter, in my case, leads to swearing that I will never go near anyone's camera lens again.

Lucas said...

I watched the Rembrandt programme too and was amazed how much information the paintings contained. I think the challenge for the photographer is even harder. The face you create with a camera is there before the shutter clicks. The face in the painting somehow has a life of its own that was not there before. Photography can do something similar. Gillian Waring played many different roles in her photos, sometimes taking on being all the different members of her real family. With a selfie we have to decide how much we are going to act and how much just be natural.
I see your picture as a consciously created (as opposed to self-conscious) artefact and a very successful one too.

Zhoen said...

That show inspired my post, actually. Your writing much more informed than mine, and yes, that is certainly why the 'selfie' is such a thing. Pretty, with the proper technology.

I like your face. It's a very good face.

And I like photobooth, because it can act in mirror, unlike a digital camera monitor.

the polish chick said...

my first thought, when i saw your photo, was just wondering if we'll ever meet face to face, and what will we think if we do. so much of what we let across the interwebs is what we want to show… still, i would be very surprised if i didn't like the both of you very much indeed.

as someone who is currently entering the middle years, and lacking the distraction of children, i am in full-on narcissistic (thank you for releasing this word from its freudian overtones) crisis mode. i feel like me, i, myself, the real core of being me has stopped somewhere in the late 30's (i'll say 37 because i like the look of that number thanks to a slight case of synesthesia) but my body kept galloping ahead into unrecognizability. photographs have become a sensitive subject. and yes, mr. monkey can perfectly mimic the face i "put on" for a photo.

overall, as i ramble here, great post. thanks for that. i can always count on you for wisdom and warmth.

Dale said...

Oh, I hope the trend continues! I have been hungry to see your face.

Roderick Robinson said...

We too were particularly struck by Simon Schama's Rembrandt preview. Proof that one doesn't have to be an art expert to talk intelligently about paintings. I have only just learned what a magnificent narrator he is - managing to speak almost colloquially and yet without any loss of profundity. It was rather horrifying to discover that British History series - recently re-run on BBC4 - was created ages ago and, in the interim, I haven't bothered to watch him on every available opportunity.

There is a long essay to be written on one's own reaction to self-portrait photos. The impulse to disagree, to re-adjust, to go on the defensive - all utterly futile since one is trying to displace the third-party element in any work of art - the role of the detached spectator. One particularly telling reaction concerns those who refer to their "favourite" self-portrait photo. It usually only takes a glance to detect rampant vanity. On re-reading your post I see you touch on this matter, rather better than I've just done. Never mind - I will not delete. Prose should ideally be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as self-portraits.

Catalyst said...

I hope you don't take this wrong but when I looked at today photo all I could think was "how do I post a wolf whistle?" You're a cutie, Lucy!

flask said...

hey, hi. i came in from zhoen.

did you see her picture? very flemish, i thought.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Question to Robbie: what is rampant vanity as opposed to the common or garden variety? Just checking to see what kind I have - with regard to photos of me, that is.

Lucy said...

Thanks everyone!

Natalie - I sometimes swear I'm never leaving the house again if that's what I look like. As to your follow up, I have weeds in the garden which are both rampant and common-or-garden... I was kind of wondering about this business of dismissing these feeling we have simply as vanity; perhaps that is to over-simplify, so it's vanity, so-what, what does that in fact mean? It seems doubly hard to be made miserable by thinking that one is looking awful when one goes about in the world, and so to take what comfort one can in thinking there might be moments and angles when it's not quite so bad, then to have this small comfort dashed by being chastised for vanity! Yet when we see an unflattering photo of someone we know and like, it doesn't bother us, we just recognise that that was there face artificially frozen at a certain moment and not necessarily representative. Which I suppose raises other questions about the whole nature of the still image. Anyway. Cheer up, we know you are beautiful.

Lucas - lovely to see you, thank you for such a thoughtful comment and take on things, as always. I don't know Gillian Waring's work, but will find out more.

Z - no, I don't think I am more informed than you, mostly I'm responding to and taking from the radio programme. But your post, as ever, made me reflect, and thank you for your response to this at yours too.

PC - I know, I am often quite convinced that any exposure to the reality of my presence would lead to instant disenchantment in most of my on-line friends! But I would still like to see you face to face anyway. The concerns and difficult feelings you speak of, which I share, are not, I'm sure, simply a matter of 'oh I'm getting old and I'm not pretty any more, boo hoo', but are related to much deeper tensions and pain about passing and lost time, our relationship to our past selves, and more.

I like 37 too.

Dale - thank you, that's nice.

Robbie - I have the same thing, why didn't we follow Schama in between better? Never mind, the boxed sets must be there to look forward to. In fact I think, I've not checked, he was always an art historian as much as a generalist, I think his book on Rembrandt was one of his earliest published works, certainly his 'Embarrassment of Riches' about that period of Dutch cultural history, was one of the things that made his name. His use of idiom and the demotic and generally very subjective language is fascinating, and one of my greatest pleasures in listening to him, I keep thinking he's going to take it too far and lose it but he never does. I think because he never uses it to patronise or ingratiate or cover for weakness or lack of substance, unlike so many of the documentary talking heads. And his energy and, an over-used word I am wary of, passion, is genuine, not affected.

I have mixed feelings about the matter of vanity, rampant or otherwise, as I said above. Further scrutiny may or may not await...

Bruce - that's really nice too, thank you. It's a flattering picture of course, which is why I don't mind showing it, but I think that's OK. Also I think perhaps the jumper must be quite flattering, which is good, or else the angle Tom held the camera!

Flask - hello, welcome and thank you. I did see Zhoen's, it was rather wasn't it?

Lucy said...

Natalie - see above! I just remembered a quote, from Simone Weil, I think -

'a beautiful woman looks in the mirror and says to herself 'that is I'; an ugly woman looks and says 'that is not I' '

That was in an AS Byatt book, who goes on to say that often beautiful women can't identify with their reflections either, because the world responds to them in ways which they feel do not really recognise them for what they are. Most of us not born acceptably beautiful may say 'my heart bleeds!'.

Though I sometimes think a bit more vanity wouldn't have gone amiss in my life, especially when I was young, had a bit more to be vain about and it might have been useful, in terms of self-esteem, but it's oh so complicated.