What is lost, is never lost. It is just replaced by something else. Remember when we talked about the importance of the portrait and portrait photography in the 18th century? According to John Tagg, “[t]he portrait is . . . a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity” (37). The idea of the portrait as a type of identity is key to its enduring impact. Although the painted portrait is no longer a part of this generation’s social identity something else has taken its place.
On the first day of class, we looked at the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children. As a reminder, we spoke about all the signifiers present in the painting. The wooded setting and the pointed lightning are deliberate choices that highlight the wealth and status of the subject. We also talked about the specific poses, how the boy is center stage and the woman is holding her children with regal poise. All of these signifiers were essential to providing the viewer with the desired impression of the subject.
The painted portrait became the way in which families with money and power established an identity for themselves and for posterity. The idea of being able to look as noble, as pale, as composed as you chose is, of course, appealing. With the decline in the aristocracy, however, came the decline of the portrait as the medium of choice to convey a sense of self. The oils and canvases gave way to albumen and glass. The vacuum that was created by the decline of painted portraiture was filled, in a more pragmatic way, by photographs. Although the medium changed, the purpose of the portrait remained.
Remember when we talked about the photographic portrait of Charles Darwin? It may seem that with a photograph the idea of making things exactly as desired in order to display a specific set of values is gone due to the time and effort it took to take a single photo. Yet, many of the same tools used in the Lady Delme portrait to signify status and identity are used in portrait photography. A deliberate pose and creative lighting seemed to emphasize what is most important about this distinguished figure: his intellect.
Although cumbersome at first, with the passing years the technology for photographic portraiture became more and more efficient and accessible to the general public.
How did the ever-evolving technology of the photograph evolve the need for self-identification?
Today, photos have become commonplace in our society. The camera is now always in the palm of our hand and at the ready to take the perfect “pic” that will define the moment, and ourselves. The fact that we can take an innumerable amount of pictures in an instant means that we are able to choose the exact picture that defines the moment as we want others to see it. Our generation is one that is defined by the photograph. This is the era of the selfie.
The selfie is that self-taken photograph that is all about our face and, to a lesser degree, about the specific backgrounds and identifiers that we include. This type of self-portrait is ubiquitous in our culture. Our phones are the camera, we are the photographer and social media is the distributor that tells the world who we are and what we’ve done.
We post that picture that tells everyone, “I go to the gym. Be ashamed if you don’t.” We choose the perfect angle that says, “Don’t I look gorgeous in Rome. Be jealous.” We take the picture that will explain just how awesome our relationship is. It is wild and free and adventurous and if yours is not, too bad so sad.”
The viewer is allowed access only to that which has been carefully selected. Now you may say that is not true because you know of someone who posts every single moment of their lives without prejudice. I will argue that even those that post pictures as they sit on the toilet or looking like they just fell down a flight of stairs have made a very deliberate choice in what they have shown. With these pictures, they are saying, “I am confident enough to show you all of this. Are you this confident?”
Nothing has changed since the time of the painted portrait. We use these pictures to show the world exactly what we want them to see. We want to look at a picture and remember who we are and what we have done. We ask the world to look at an orchestrated picture of ourselves and we want them to see as our very essence. Where we stand in society and how we see ourselves is all in a picture.