Hanna Grace – Untitled (2015)
Given several years, art historians are going to have to grapple with the fallout from this prevalent notion of the ‘selfie’.
For all intents and purposes, Wikipedia considers a selfie anything where the operator of a lens based imaging device produces an image of themselves. I think that’s more than a little problematic since it conflates self-portraiture with the selfie phenomenon.
What’s the difference? You might inquire. I’m not sure I have an answer and even if there were a way to flowchart things so that we can easily facilitate a distinction, I’m not sure that will ultimately be a good thing, though.
There is an art historical trend of associating women with mirrors. The most unequivocal of these instances is probably Charles Allan Gilbert’s All is Vanity–where a woman (who in an art historical perspective are always treated as if they have a corner on the vanity market) is staring at her own reflection in a mirror transforms via optical illusion into an enormous skull.
This knee jerk association of women with vanity is disingenuous considering many of the artists who ran with this motif also painted self-portraits which would have required them to stare at themselves in a mirror for countless hours. And the resulting work would be seen as meritorious and not at all vain.
More recently–the backlash over the sorority members more interested in taking selfies than paying attention to the baseball game they were attending. It’s all just an extension of the societal double standards with regard to performance of femininity: the fine line between prude and slut and regardless of how carefully you try to walk it, you’re still going to be cat-called on the streets and it’s going to be your fault for being a a woman.
But beyond that what does the term even mean? Ostensibly it means you hold the camera and take a picture of yourself. But with the advent of loathsome selfie sticks, where’s the line? Despite the visual limitations of the selfie, the results are frequently more appealing than the ubiquitous bathroom mirror reflection image.
I’m not one to poopoo any of it. If your preferred method of ontology involves self-portraiture, I am 120% an ally. (However, I do think like anything else there are pitfalls–I’m thinking of the young woman who recently acknowledged her Instagram wasn’t as candid as she presented it to the world and the toxic effect it had on her self-esteem.)
But most of all I don’t want work like the above images by Hanna Grace to be lumped in with the sort of casual, knee-jerk let’s take a picture because it’ll last longer motivation of selfies.
Maybe it’s snobbery but a part of me thinks if you take the time to set up a tripod and think about your framing, there’s more going on than something incidental. Not that making selfies is always easy–I saw two young woman on the Brooklyn Bridge several years back spend close to 15 minutes taking and retaking the same image to get it right. I won’t deny there’s an art to that but I think that the highest that a selfie can aspire to is probably a well-made document. There has to be more than just capturing the moment.
And that’s why I like these images so much. I’d hate to see them termed selfies. There’s thought behind them. A sense of the tone of the room, dynamic light. But also implicit interrogations over questions of the cultural sexualization of nudity–the way that the shining through the top of the window creates a frame within the frame that is aggressively controlled and shaped by the woman in the image. It conveys a totality of personhood.
I’m not sure these are effective as examples of fine art, necessarily. The pose grows increasingly confident/less awkward from top to bottom. The exposure is best in the middle image. Also, the middle image makes the best balance between the space occupied by Grace’s body in the frame contrasted with the room as negative space.
If you take the three together though and sort of take the mean average, I feel like they are sketches that could be used as fodder for a truly breath-taking image.