In the Hazel Hough Galleries, Robin O’Dell, Jorge Vidal and Missy Hurley and I are debating the difference between the photographic-based art on the wall and the selfies prevalent on Instagram and other social media.
Photographic self-portraits date to 1840, with Hippolyte Bayard, O’Dell, the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Photographic Collection, tells me. Bayard was one of the first photographers; his contemporaries included Louis Daguerre (as in, daguerreotype).
“He had come up with an entirely different way of making photographs,” O’Dell says, “that, in essence, wasn’t acknowledged, even though it was at the same time as who we now acknowledge as the fathers of photography.” (Along with Dauguerre and William Fox Talbot, the latter of whom invented salt prints, or what we think of as paper photographs created from film negatives.)
Bayard’s method involved bypassing the negative and printing directly to paper. In a series of political shenanigans, Daguerre’s partner convinced Bayard to hold off on announcing his invention. In that delay, Daguerre announced his process — robbing Bayard of glory and a place in history books as the father of modern photography.
In protest, O’Dell says, Bayard released a self-portrait of himself in 1840, in which it appeared he had drowned.
That was the first self-portrait.
Ignoring for a moment that, absent acceptance of Bayard’s method, it took 167 years for us to get from Daguerreotypes to a negative-less, mass-reproducible photograph with the first iPhone, let’s focus on how else the self-portrait has evolved.
Surrounded by highly contextualized self-portrats in the MFA’s galleries, our conversation wanders through photography’s timeline.
“Self-portrait,” Vidal, the MFA’s manager of special projects, says, “transcends the selfie artist.”
“It transcends the self as the subject,” Hurley, one of the owners of the museum’s marketing agency, B2 Communications, agrees.
This Is Not a Selfie has 80 self-portraits from 66 artists, and while you could call each one a selfie, they’re so much more — and yes, the devil’s in the details, which, in this instance, is context, as it was in Bayard’s first protest “selfie.” You’ll find no duckfaces here, but after immersing myself in the galleries for an afternoon, it’s clear that the art of self-portraiture has some commonalities with the selfie.
The Irmas, who donated this collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (from which this exhibit is on loan), have the “most significant collection of self-portraiture in the U.S.,” the MFA’s press release claims (while Facebook bests the collection in number, the Irmas collection clearly outshines it in the “significance” arena).
It’s also clear a vast chasm exists between the two types of photographs.
But first, the similarities.
Both the selfie and the body of work in This Is Not a Selfie tell the viewer something about the photographer, who, in both instances, is the subject of the work. Both selfies and self-portraitures appear, to the casual consumer, candid.
“Even though it’s a self-portrait, in this sense, it’s not as candid as you might think,” Hurley says.
Take, for example, the black-and-white untitled photograph from Eileen Cowin: In her 1981 image, from her series Family Docu-drama, she’s holding a child, who has her face turned away from the camera. A man has slung his jacket over his shoulder and appears heading out the door (or, in this instance, the left side of the photograph). It appears a moment captured by happenstance, forever frozen in time. It is not, O’Dell tells me. The props and lighting give the impression the images are, contrary to what you may think at first, in fact, posed.
The same can be said, of course, for our carefully curated social media feeds.
But the differences mean much more than the similarities. Think of selfies — a la Instagram or Facebook — as watered-down versions of self-portraiture. And while both the selfie and self-portraiture tell the viewer something about the photographer, self-portaiture speaks volumes more — and often carries underlying commentary.
“Everyone has the initial concept of ‘oh, I know exactly what a selfie is,’” Hurley explains, “but what you see here, when you say the word ‘selfie,’ is not where your mind immediately goes.”
This works in this carefully collected and curated display each come with implied opinions. Take the Andy Warhol, in a photo booth, sans wig. Or the collaborative work from Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Cox, “The Child” (1994), in which the idyllic couple is actually dressed at odds with their respective genders, the mother figure wearing a red scarf wrapped around her head. You could spend an afternoon unpacking the commentary about family, racism and black America.
Or let your gaze rest upon Claude Cahun’s “I.O.U. — Self-Pride” — it’s essentially a puzzle, an enigma of commentary much like the first piece art history students study, Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Marriage.”
The intended audience for this exhibit, though, is not only hardcore art aficianados: At three stations, visitors can take selfies against backdrops created in homage to works found in the exhibit. They can — and, in fact, the MFA encourages this — take selfies with the self-portraits. The MFA’s hope is that they will post them on social media with the hashtag #notaselfieMFA — and if they do, they’ll become part of a digital component at the exhibit.
And it’s that marriage of the self-portrait through time — the earliest in the exhibit dates to 1853 — to the idea of present-day selfies that cuts through age, technology and cultural barriers. Take a selfie with a self-portrait of a man posing as Frida Kahlo? Yes, please. See an original Diane Arbus? Check. Make your selfie part of the social media component of this exhibit? There’s that, too.
The “selfies-not-selfies” on the walls in the galleries are rife with context our modern day selfies — this writer included — lack. But just as Bayard predated himself with his overlooked process, the selfies we take today pay homage — whether the taker knows it or not — to these well considered works, each a statement in its own right.