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I know far too many men whose go-to photo face has become that zany one-raised-eyebrow thing that twentysomething dudes are fond of affecting these days. Here and here and here are some examples and you've undoubtedly seen many more. It has touches of Dr. Evil but, like, a winking, clever version, or so the eyebrow-raiser seems to think.
What is happening here? What is this thing? Can you explain it to me or at least attempt to name it or talk me through it? Yes, yes, these boys are a little shy about posing sincerely for the camera and try their best to put forth their most convincing I-don't-give-a-damn, but is there more to it? Is this the unfortunate male equivalent of duckface? And how does a modern gentleman who's concerned with being, like, authentic and aware all the time photograph so he avoids coming off like his sole mode of humor is sarcasm?
My camera-wary brethren thank you for your concern, Anastasia, and my publisher appreciates your assistance in keeping this column on trend. Have British bookmakers begun taking bets on the Word of the Year awards? If so, what odds are they laying on selfie?
It has been seven years since the Styles desk of the New York Times identified the self-portrait photograph as “a kind of folk art for the digital age.” The headline was “Here I Am Taking My Own Picture,” and the sources included Guy Stricherz, the creator of snapshot anthology titled Americans in Kodachrome, 1945-65. “Mr. Stricherz said he reviewed more than 100,000 pictures over 17 years in compiling the book but found fewer than 100 self-portraits,” the paper explained, proceeding to calculate how quickly you could find 100 self-portraits as many checking out “MySpace, Friendster, and similar social networking sites.” Oh, we were all so young then, back in the early days of the self-surveillance state.
At the end of February, Instagram passed a numerical milestone—100 million users serving avatars to one another—and the media, in the course of reporting on the masses reproducing images of themselves and attending to the self-publicity of entertainers, have since ushered the word selfie into mainstream vocabulary. Check the spanking-new Wikipedia entry. The word selfie is catchy, perhaps, in its cuteness. The innocence of the fond diminutive makes self-invention sounds like a mere mischievous romp and carries a hint of self-deprecation that takes the edge off the exhibitionism. The word selfie somehow implies that the self-portraitist’s avatar is a bit of cuddly futurism, like some electronic Japanese pet; compare blunt self-shot, with its weaponized ring and its auditioning eagerness.
We have recently seen, in good and bad newspapers, many gentle laments and qualified celebrations of the topic, with pop-socialists twisting such words as “narcissism” and “empowering” away from useful meaning, and CNN interviewing a wedding photographer while wondering if camera shyness is going extinct as a distinct sensation. We will test neither that question, nor the question of exactly how profound a development this is in the history of telecommunications and human relations, what with individuals using seductive machines to build “personal brands,” thus expressing the best and worst of their personalities with robotic efficiency, all to the end of helping corporations to rebuild the relationships among buying and selling and product and marketing and self-image and personal identity. There are light years of cyberspace between the America of Kodachrome and the World Wide Web formed in furious consequence of the minting of Facemash. We are prisoners in a glamorama panopticon of our own devising, and there is no escape, but set all that aside, please. The point is that every gentleman needs one good head shot. You must prepare a face to meet the faces you virtually meet.
If he is compelled to serially confront that dark circle above the screen of his laptop, and if he has pretensions to documentary or artistry (in the tradition of Cindy Sherman or on the model of the hip-hop pixie Kreayshawn), then he should shoot his self-portrait as often and oddly as necessary to achieve his artistic aims.
If he is taking his picture in accordance with the new norms of social media, he is advised to search out natural light, to choose a background that is neither distracting nor dull, to give a moment’s attention to framing as well as to the rule of thirds, and for god’s sake sit up straight.
If he is interested in generating an interesting image, then he might consider the venerable trick of shooting his reflection with a proper camera, so that he is forced to engage with the idea of auto-iconography in a structurally meaningful fashion, using the image of the camera (and the image of the image of the camera) to address his complicated feelings about the process.
And here we return to Anastasia’s question, supposing that the guys raising eyebrows are trying to express a feeling about presenting themselves to scrutiny. They are trying and often failing; they are questioning the camera’s power, but the awkwardness of the image is evidence of the camera having overpowered them. They are attempting irony and clumsily arriving at contradiction. Their superciliousness is an off-putting put-on.