Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I think the genre that is social-networking self-portraiture, i.e. Arm's-Length Photos You Took Of Yourself To Put On MySpace/Facebook, will one day be the subject of thorough analysis and maybe some kind of applied theory. In the meantime here are some field notes.

The Old Days (2002-2005 or so, a.k.a. The Friendster Era):
• Characterized by frequent cellphone photos, identifiable by graininess, low light, a photo-of-a-VHS-video quality, and a frame that is almost all face.
• Inexplicably popular: photos of oneself without a shirt on, BUT! only from the shoulders up. Like, hey hey, I'm topless under this frame. Sober, rational adults were known to succumb to this temptation. The accompanying facial expression was serious, smoky eyed, mouth downturned--i.e., "sexy." Drawback: composition calls to mind a highly realistic wax bust rather than a pinup.

The Dawn of Myspace (2004-2007):
• The Helicopter Shot becomes the dominant form of self-portraiture. The subject holds the camera up above her head and looks up into it, usually widening eyes and maybe forming a dainty pout. Creates the illusion of big eyes and tapering chin. And tapering body. Single most inaccurate form of self-representation out there. Everyone looks like an anime figure.

The Screen Is Mirror (2007-present)
• The current predominant medium is the Macbook built-in camera. If the sepia effect, the colored-pencil effect, the mirror effect, or any of the selections from the built-in effect library haven't tipped you off, you will know this photo by
a) the faintly bluish glow it illuminates the subject's face with in low light
b) the fact that, as with the old-school photobooth, the subject is nearly always gazing upon their own visage on the screen instead of the camera lens itself. The gaze tends to be down and to the right.

• This provides the single most accurate avenue to other people's Mirror Face since the ubiquitous group mirrors of high school (locker room, restroom, etc.). You know, the multiple tiny adjustments we all instantly make when we look in the mirror--the widened eyes, the tilt of jaw, the pursed lips. The face we choose to see vs. the face everyone actually sees. Here it all is, on the Macbook.
Furthermore, most people don't bother to flip the photo to reflect reality, so it is in fact a reversed image of their face, which means this is what they think they look like all the time. But it's not, not quite.*

(*Side note: at the Pink Pony in New York (sadly, new Frenchy version, not old coffeehouse), there is (or was in 2002) a True Mirror in the restroom. The True Mirror is actually a box with a series of mirrors that manage to reverse the usual mirror image to reflect the way you really look--not backwards, which is the way you usually see yourself. I went to wash my hands, and the moment I looked in the mirror was one of the single most disconcerting experiences of my life. My whole face seemed slightly distorted, wrong, as if it had melted slightly to one side. All my little asymmetries seemed radically magnified. When I reached up to adjust my hair, my hand flew to the wrong side. The lettering on my shirt was legible. I felt horrified and then kind of nauseated. That was my face?
I went and got my friends, Norwegians who were visiting, and we all crowded into the bathroom and freaked out at our own faces. Of course everyone else's face looked perfectly normal to us. It was like, "No, that can't be what I look like!" / "Yes, that's exactly what you look like" / wails / giggles / reassurances / face-making.
Once I got used to my actual face I left feeling better. I had a whole new face I didn't know about. I wasn't just limited to what I saw in the mirror. I realized my face was pretty much out of my control and that was liberating, in a way.)

Timeless Tropes:
• Photos where the subject thrusts their lips forward--once again, to be sexy. Whether ironic or serious is unclear; usually I think it is both ("I am playing at being sexy, ha ha, but seriously it's pretty sexy right?") (Aside: The word "sexy" is starting to look peculiar to me.)
• Photos taken at arm's length and slightly up wherein the subject is not looking at the camera but looking off to some angle contemplatively, pensively, as if not taking a picture of oneself but caught in the act of Deep Thought.


tilda said...

sometimes when I am at work I'll catch myself unexpectedly in the mirror and it will totally shock me.

the unreliable narrator said...

This is all uncomfortably accurate. So, um, thank you. I think.