The undocument

Kayleigh Harris, "Selfie", detail. Archival pigment print within pressed wax paper, 12.5 x 12.5 inches.

Kayleigh Harris, “Selfie”, detail. Archival pigment print within pressed wax paper.

Portraiture has become something like a new common language. With photography now a nearly daily practice for the average smartphone user, visual imagery is the favored way many people communicate who they are, what they are doing, and where they’re going. In Instagram and Snapchat’s ascendancy over Facebook, younger generations are making what they say subordinate to what they can show. The selfie has become the way people exhibit their place and role in the day-to-day world. FaceTime and Skype have turned telephone calls into face-to-face encounters: a sort of living portraiture. Even when you tap into Uber, up pops the face of the driver who is already on the way.

This is a radical shift in the role of the portrait–a shift that began with popular photography itself, history’s big Kodak moment, when George Eastman put photography within reach of the middle class. Now nearly anyone with a modest income considers it a requirement to have a phone that also doubles as a camera. As a result, many people post a continuous stream of self-portraits on the Internet. What was once a privilege for only the rich and powerful is seen now as almost a mundane obligation of contemporary life. A portrait was once something rare, costly, elegant, and almost magical. Now, it’s become so commonplace it almost recedes into the background as a routine resource of making yourself known to others.

I rarely fulfill this obligation: when I post shots to Instagram or Facebook, I make an effort not to be in the frame. I see quite enough of myself in the mirror, and the fact that I’m taking a shot proves that I’m there, which is part of the motivation for a selfie: “Hey, look where I was!” Those young and full of self-esteem feel otherwise: their faces are essential to the scene. So their self-portraits document that they were at such-and-such a place with a certain group of people. But is it an accurate representation of what was actually happening? Or is it less a trustworthy document and more a form of personal public relations?

That’s one of the interesting questions hovering around the FotoFocus Biennial, a month-long regional celebration of photography and lens-based art underway in Cincinnati. From the website: “Featuring over 60 participating museums, galleries, academic institutions, and community organizations, the 2016 Biennial will include original FotoFocus curated exhibitions and four days of events and programming, including screenings, lectures, and performances.” The theme of this year’s FotoFocus is “the Undocument,” which means the biennial “interrogates,” as they say, the notion that there is such a thing as authenticity and even “reality,” especially when it comes to photographic imagery.

Usually, I’m wearied by postmodern exercises dedicated to deconstructing all forms of authority and power–which seems to lead to a kind of relativism in which all viewpoints are equally valid and the notion of universal truth is considered an oppressive relic from the past. But I have to admit, Antioch College’s Herndon Gallery has pulled together a smart, interesting and thought-provoking show around the idea of how portraiture has become universalized.

This FotoFocus biennial theme is the ‘Undocument.’  Wenker said that, rather than accepting photographs as documentary “truth,” the exhibition is calling that assumption into question. Last year, a prominent alum of the school, Estrallita Karsh, the wife of the renowned photographer Yousef Karsh gave Antioch College a print of Karsh’s portrait of Charles Kettering. Karsh’s famous body of work includes powerful and theatrically-lit portraits of world leaders and public figures, predominantly men of power or privilege. About the same time, Jennifer said, a senior student had just organized a student exhibition examining “selfies.”  It was the timing of these two events and a desire to connect historical portraiture to the current era that led the gallery to its proposal for IMAGE | The Public Face.  Here’s what Jennifer told me by phone and in written responses to questions:

Wenker: We began thinking about how portrait photography has changed and become more democratized.  We began researching our alumni database of photographers and looking for shifts in portrait-making within the historical narrative. The students who helped write the proposal started looking at work and thinking about the shifts in who was being photographed and shifts in agency towards self-representation and control over one’s public image.  We also wanted to make the historical arc feel very relatable to 18-22 year-old students.

DD: Who are most interested in selfies.

When you look at selfies, there is this conflation of the photographer and the sitter.   They are one.  That wasn’t always the case, of course.  And also we were thinking about how portraits feel straight-forward when you aren’t thinking about them much. Yet historically, particularly with painted portraits, there is privilege. It was question of who had the money or ‘societal importance’ to sit for a portrait painter in the first place. With photography, it became more democratic, partly because it was much less expensive than a painted portrait, and the photographer often involved the sitter in the “how” of the portrait. And then increasingly democratic with the selfie.   With students on their cellphones, every Snapchat conversation has a new portrait and a little bit of text. I’m watching my 11-year-old do this, and I feel there is this disconnect between my generation and her generation as I watch her.  Observing from outside her generation, we may feel like there’s this unhealthy preoccupation on vanity and image and little in the way of self-editing or curating.  But that is a misconception.  Even though the selfie portrait seems instantaneous–and in a way it is–there’s a tremendous amount of posing, cropping, staging, lighting adjustment, editing, experimentation with filters and retakes.   There’s twenty-five, thirty shots before my daughter picks the one that reflects who she is at that moment and then she hits send.  It is like a dark room in a way, where you take film, and go through negatives and make contact sheets, select the best images, and dodge and burn. It’s just a lot faster.

And it’s integrated into conversation. It’s different from the role of a portrait in the past.

The dark room was this wonderfully social space where photographers would exchange feedback on their work as it was developing.  Now that social aspect and criticality  happens on social media with hearts and comments.

The smartphone has a lot to do with this shift in the role of portraiture.

Yes, but there are several other shifts of agency in the timeline historically.  Wendy Ewald is one of the figures in the middle of this shift.  In the 60s and 70s, she went into Appalachian communities and was working both as an anthropologist and a photographer.  She was interested in giving up some of the photographer’s control and instead shifting voice and choices about representation to people who had little of either. She wasn’t the decision maker. She would offer her cameras and teach children to use them to tell their own stories. Her work is collaborative and social, and her subjects decide what they will wear and where they will be seen, and they decide what words they want to say on their portraits printed on huge banners posted outside in their communities. Their neighborhoods now have faces of the children saying what they wanted to say about their communities and about their stories.  They–not the media or politicians–control their public image.

Is she still working now?

Absolutely.  Ewald has spent her life working, living and embedded in communities in Appalachia, Canadian Indian Reservations, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa engaging communities in collaborative picture making and storytelling.   We are showing a huge portrait of a Saudi Arabian woman in the exhibition.  Wendy made this portrait collaboratively with the sitter in the late 1990s while working on a project with Saudi women about self-representation. There was only one of the women who actually let her photograph her face, and she was a painter.  The other women chose to work with objects or veils to cover themselves.  But, the painter veiled her otherwise forbidden public image with a sharpie marker over the printed portrait, creating a gorgeously intricate drawn veil of Arabic script, lines, patterns, obscuring all that was forbidden, but revealing much of her own story. We placed this portrait of Shadia next to a 17’ wall filled with Instagram selfies.  There is a beautiful narrative in the space between them.

One of the youngest photographers you’re showing has given a gallery talk about her work, right? How does her work fit into this overview?

Kayleigh Harris just graduated in 2015.  She’s at the age where she’s just trying to figure out who she is and how she fits in. She wants to claim her space and say I am a sexy human being and own it.  In 2012, she started to do Instagram (privately) and her images were quieter (than what she’s doing now) but they just got bolder and bolder and somehow simultaneously more vulnerable as she was coming out lesbian and not only accepting, but embracing her identity fully.   She shared that she began using Instagram the way her mother used a diary–documenting who she was, what she’s feeling, what she’s thinking, observing her own changes–using self-portraiture, or selfies.  In her powerful gallery talk, Kaleigh challenged those that suggest selfie culture or even female sexuality is a vanity.   She cited the long history of how women are depicted in art by men.  First men painted women nude for men’s pleasure, and then they put a mirror in the woman’s hand and called her ‘Vanity.’  They expect a woman to be beautiful and sexy (for men), but shame her if she isn’t or condemn her when she claims it for herself.  You can never get it right.

You talked about the male gaze–or an objectifying gaze in general. It seems as if the exhibit is saying people are taking ownership of the gaze. You’re subject to it down through history. You’re at the mercy of whoever is doing the portrait. But there are always strictures. Facebook always seems so sanitized. It’s like a community where what’s allowed or considered appropriate is quite narrow.

In the beginning it was easier, because your friends were your actual friends, right?  But, as the number of Facebook friends grows unwieldy and into the hundreds,  you can’t speak to them all the same way.  Of her Instagram work, Kaleigh said, in the beginning she kept her Instagram feed private as a journal and only recently made her work public.  But that large public audience is not there when you need them.

James Luckett, one of Kaleigh’s photography professors at Antioch, has work in the show from his Polaroid series, “like a man as a man.”  James is a very gentle man who does not fit the stereotypical male machismo.  Of his work,  Kaleigh said “I think that both James and I make work about performing these gender roles.”  In his self-portrait work from this series, James puts on a power suit and tie or a bathrobe and holds a beer while wearing a mask with exaggerated eyebrows and mustache and he tries on these different masculinities.  We placed his portraits next to Berenice Abbott’s portraits of James Joyce and Andre Gide and Lewis Hine.  Each of these men are dramatically lit, highlighting their faces and hands, each wearing dark tweed suits, hats, and engaged in poses of power and position.

Adjacent to the Abbott portraits, there is another image of maleness–a wall-sized portrait of an Afghan refugee boy by Wendy Ewald–that is powerful in his vulnerability and fragility and in the strength of his unyielding gaze.

In some ways, this portrait feels more documentary, more undeniably truth, but then I consider the veracity of the portraits made of and by the sitter and wonder if we can really answer that.  What is truth in a portrait?  Selfies contain a sometimes aspirational half-truth and in some ways that little not-quite-there-yet lie is more “truthy” because it represents the sitters hopes and dreams.  And, isn’t that a big part of the truth of that individual?

Yes, all the editing that goes into a selfie you take for Facebook or some other profile shot. What you want to be is part of who you are.

If you can put that in the frame, the slightly-biased truth might be truer.

So, not only can you be the photographer, you can be Cindy Sherman.

Her name has come up a lot.

The evolution you’re tracing raises the question: what’s the end result of the ocean of content now. There is so much content now. Everybody produces and everybody can produce. Electronics not only democratize everything; it’s universalizing it.

Where does it all lead?  I don’t know.  It is democratic, but I don’t think it is universalizing it in the sense of creating an ocean of homogenous imagery, but instead it is quite the opposite.  It is the broad diversity of imagery that may emerge from the empowerment of a more democratic system of representation and art production.

That’s where we left it, but the power of the show, for me, is that it pointed toward this enormous shift that has all sorts of implications for how people think about the role of the creative imagination and the role, in ordinary human lives, of what was strictly the province of art. Something parallel to the sharing economy is happening in all the arts. It’s easier and easier for anyone to produce a poem or a musical track or a novel or a photographically-based piece of visual art and make it visible to anyone around the world. That is a democratic trend. Yet content is exploding, and the only real dilemma is not how to create but how to reach people with whatever you’re making. We’re at the advent of an enormous surplus of all creative “content” and even now the vast majority of it sits, available but unrecognized, like dark matter or the inventory of that warehouse where the ark of the covenant finds its home at the end of Indiana Jones. Social media is a democracy with no barriers to entry, but once you get in, the only rules that govern who rises into view are often the same as the ones that governed who was popular, and who was overlooked, in high school. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though if you look at the top “Instagram stars” they are predictably celebrities who achieved a following by other means and are simply using the medium as self-promotion. It seems that the “democratization” of self-portraiture, along with the ability to generate creative content in a variety of media, desperately needs new gatekeepers–not to shut out those who don’t measure up, but to single out the ones who are doing something of interest and value to the viewer.

In other words, I’d find myself far more engaged by the new wealth of content if I had reliable ways to find a path through it toward what would mean to the most to me. To some degree I’ve been able to do that with music, by using podcasts like Sound Opinions and All Songs Considered, and looking at playlists of other Spotify users, and also with Instagram, but just barely, and only because Instagram has algorithms that extract rules from my choices of who to follow and suggests more content creators based on what I seem to like. It’s the sort of thing Amazon, Pandora, Spotify and all the rest have been doing for a while, as well. It’s hit or miss, but it’s a start.

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