College student Steven Zelnio says he might post one or two pictures a week on Instagram, but he’s rarely in them. If he does send out a selfie, it’s more likely to be on Snapchat, where a picture or video disappears within seconds.
“Selfies aren’t exactly how I like to depict myself,” Zelnio says, adding: “I don’t think it’s proper documentation for my profile.”
Wait — what?
Yes, serial selfie-ists, that goofy shot you liked so much that you made it your Facebook profile picture might be saying more about you than any words could.
This may not be a subject you’ve given much thought to, but Zelnio and a bunch of fellow students at the Kansas City Art Institute have. Here’s a sign of how selfies have become embedded in our culture: An art history elective called Selfie and Other, offered for the first time spring semester, invited students to study and discuss not just the modern phenomenon of selfies but also self-portraiture through the ages.
Naturally, their final project involved taking selfies — a few, it would turn out, that resemble typical selfies, and others you’d never label as such — and then analyzing the images by writing artist statements.
Zelnio, a senior painting major from Moline, Ill., liked the class because his own paintings are typically “an investigation of identity.”
Instructor Alison Miller says one inspiration for proposing the course was seeing Katy Perry’s geisha act at the 2013 American Music Awards, complete with kimono, cherry blossoms and fan dancers. (Miller’s area of study is 20th century Japanese art history, particularly images of Empress Teimei.) She got to thinking about how media imagery can change perceptions of who someone is.
“What are we doing when we represent ourselves?” Miller wondered. Maybe “trying on new skins in some ways, trying on new identities.”
The 28 students spent the first half of the course looking at how a variety of artists have dealt with identity. One example: Korean photographer and filmmaker Nikki S. Lee, who by posing with groups ranging from hip-hop musicians to swing dancers to yuppies would appear to become one of them.
The second half focused on online images of self, which prompted vigorous discussion among the students “because they have a lot more experience with social media,” Miller says.
Among the topics raised that most students hadn’t considered: Who owns a picture you post online? Who controls it? You or some giant Silicon Valley corporation?
Miller found that all of her students (divided just about evenly between men and women) had Facebook accounts, although few were on the site much; they apparently perceive Facebook as more the domain of their grandmas. Most used Instagram and Snapchat. Half or so were on Twitter. A few liked Reddit or Tumblr.
(Speaking of Snapchat, one of its founders lamented in Forbes how the “massive burden” of managing our online images has “taken all of the fun out of communicating.” Hence, in his view, the appeal of Snapchat’s vanishing act.)
For their final project, in addition to writing a research paper on an artist, students turned in four images of themselves, which were to be new and “constructed or planned.” In the end, some weren’t true selfies at all — clearly, in some cases, someone else took the picture. Some were drawings. Some contained no faces.
The art selfies are now on display for the world to see, because creating a Tumblr page was another part of the assignment. (See them at project-selfie-kcai.tumblr.com.) Students helped one another edit the images and the artist statements.
Carlos Ortiz, a junior printmaking and art history double major from Miami, put himself on the covers of some favorite record albums. Although he’s not big on cellphone selfies, he has painted a lot of self-portraits.
He admits to a bias “of looking at painting as much more of a thought-out process than a selfie” is.
Before she took the class, Michelle Miller says, she felt odd taking and sharing pictures of herself. It seemed like a narcissistic exercise. So she tended to be “kinda hidden” in such pictures, like along the edge.
But now that her eyes have been opened to all the reasons people take selfies, “I’m not afraid to put myself in the image,” says Miller, a digital filmmaking major from Dallas who just graduated.
“If you feel good about yourself, it’s OK to share yourself with people.”
That conclusion wouldn’t surprise the Selfie and Other instructor.
Selfies can come from “a larger human impulse to document what you’re doing,” she says. “They’ve thought about how this is not new. It’s made some of them feel better about their own selfies.”
SELFIES IN THE NEWS
Does a day go by without some celebrity selfie story? No, actually. Recent examples:
▪ Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson claims to have set a new Guinness World Record for most self-portraits taken in 3 minutes. He did that last week at the London premiere of his new flick “San Andreas.”
▪ Kim Kardashian has a new book out (yes, really!): “Selfish,” which features hundreds of shots. “From digital cameras, to Polaroids, to Blackberries and smartphones, these photos document the evolution of my selfies,” she writes in the coffee table tome.
▪ Heard about “brelfies”? Breastfeeding selfies are supposedly sweeping the Internet — Gwen Stefani is one of the celebs on board. But some bottle-feeding moms object.
▪ Leonardo DiCaprio was spotted using a selfie stick this week as he did some sightseeing in New York with family and friends. (Attaching your phone to the end of a stick lets you get a better pic.) Here’s how the New York Post reported Leo’s adventure: “He played ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ but these days he looks more like ‘The Tourist From Topeka.’”
▪ Miley Cyrus got one over on Instagram this week when she posted a selfie wearing an orange wig and a loose halter top that — horrors! — revealed a nipple.