The explosion in self-portraiture

Interesting piece in the NYT about the prevalence of self-portraits on the Web.

Art historians say that the popularity of the self-portrait is unprecedented in the century-long history of the snapshot. “I think it is probably a new genre of photography,” said Guy Stricherz, the author of “Americans in Kodachrome, 1945-65” (Twin Palms, 2002), which includes snapshots culled from 500 American families. Mr. Stricherz said he reviewed more than 100,000 pictures over 17 years in compiling the book but found fewer than 100 self-portraits. These days you can find as many by clicking through a few home pages on MySpace, Friendster or similar social networking sites.

So what’s going on? Part of the answer is that digital cameras make self-portraits easy to do. Another part is that many people have a camera with them all the time now — in their mobile phones. But is there more to it than that?

Even in previous generations when cameras were cheap, they were generally reserved for special occasions. “In 1960 a person just wouldn’t take a Kodak Brownie picture of themselves,” Mr. Stricherz said. “It would have been considered too self-aggrandizing.”

Psychologists and others who study teenagers say the digital self-portraiture is an extension of behavior typical of the young, like trying on different identities, which earlier generations might have expressed through clothing and hairstyles. “Most of what I’ve been seeing is taking place in the bedroom,” said Kathryn C. Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University, referring to teenage self-portraits. Dr. Montgomery studies the relation of teenagers to the digital media. “It’s a locus of teen life where they are forming their identities, and now it’s also a private studio where they can develop who they are.

“What better tool could they have than one that allows them to take pictures of themselves and manipulate them like never before?”

Aside from the self-indulgent teenager, however, there’s a lot of semi-serious self-portraiture going on. I looked on Flickr, for example, and found two really interesting photostreams — one by a talented (and beautiful) photography student, the other by a busy broadcaster.

Looking at these images, it suddenly occurred to me that in nearly 40 years of being a serious photographer I’ve only once ever photographed someone who appeared to be unashamedly fascinated by the resulting portraits. Most of my subjects seem to be embarrassed by their images — even when the pictures have been, qua pictures, beautiful. And I wondered if it’s significant that the sole narcissist turned out to be a major artist whom I photographed at the beginning of her career.

Hmmm…. These are deep waters, Holmes.