Self- Portraits and Portraits of the Self Online
Self-portraiture in photography and the corresponding concern with one’s image is an old obsession of the few that has become the widely accepted norm of the digital and Internet-savvy masses. This paper addresses the similarities and parallels among different types of self-portraiture and portraits of the self in photography using examples from the nineteenth century, when photography was first invented, and from today. First, the paper defines self-portraiture and portraits of the self. The paper explores how the construction of the image of the self relates to concepts of performance, manipulation, control, and perception, and how in fact early self-portraits like those of Mark Twain and the Countess de Castiglione have striking similarities to the millions of self-portraits and portraits of the self published online today (on Facebook, Twitter, and fashion blogs). Next, this paper addresses the importance of analyzing photographic self-portraiture in the cultural and social context from which it emerges. In terms of today’s self-portraits, this includes a discussion of technology, communication patterns, and the prevalence of such photography online today. The paper analyzes the parallels among these 19th century and contemporary examples of photographic self-portraits, specifically looking at concepts of beauty and the body, visual representations of the feminine, truth and accuracy in photography, impulses driving self-marketing, and social practices around photography. The paper concludes with the idea that while technology and communication patterns and practices have evolved, creating a persona and marketing to others through photography, and the impulses behind such behavior have remained the same.
Self-portraiture in photography and the corresponding concern with one’s image is an old obsession of the few that has become the mainstream norm of the digital and Internet savvy masses. There are self-portraits dating back to the nineteenth century, produced soon after the invention of photography, when it was at the disposal of very few. Hippolyte Bayard is considered an inventor of photography, although he was not recognized in his time for his contributions, as were William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre. Nevertheless, Bayard “gave us what might be ascribed the first photographic portrait, the first photographic nude, the first photographic self-portrait” and “the first direct example of photographic lie” in his “parody of David’s Death of Marat, depicting himself as an unclaimed cadaver in the Paris morgue.”
These categorizations of Bayard’s photograph point to important themes prevalent in the kind of widespread self-portraiture on blogs and social networking sites today. Constructing an image and representation of one’s self, truth in photography, in addition to concepts of beauty, the impulse for self-marketing, and social practices around photography are themes that this paper will explore. I will do so through a discussion of early examples of self portraits or portraits of the self, which I define as photographs directed and controlled by the person captured in the shot. Although these early photographs may seem to be unique in content and production, this paper will argue that they are in fact strikingly similar to the millions of self-portraits and portraits of the self published and shared online today.
Constructing the Self in Photography
On a fundamental level, “we understand a portrait in any medium to be an artist’s interpretive rendering of the ‘subject’ while a self-portrait is an artist’s presentation of self.” Self-portraits in photography include the most obvious definition, photographs one physically takes of him or herself. They can also include the portraits of the self mentioned above, which “convey to the viewer the very subject who was responsible for staging the image” though “not always for actually ‘taking’ the picture.” An integral element of self-portraits and portraits of the self is performance. While performance seems to apply most aptly to photographic self-performance of postmodern artists such as Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama, there is always an element of performance when we are in front of a camera. When aware of the presence of the camera, one often behaves differently—whether consciously or not. In “’the Eternal Return’: Self-Portrait Photography as Technology of Embodiment,” Amelia Jones explains the Lacanian understanding of the subject in pictures: “In the self-display that constitutes our enactment of what we call our ‘individuality,’ the subject, Lacan argues, ‘gives of himself, or receives from the other, something that is like a mask, a double, an envelope, a thrown-off skin.’”
This performance highlights that fact that photographs “are human constructs…the constructions of individuals with beliefs and biases.” Although self-portraits and portraits of the self may be different from other photography in that there is an attempt by the subject “to keep control of their own representation,” they are, like other photographs, constructs rather than windows. In “Mirrors and Shadows: The Digital Aestheticisation of Oneself,” Jill Walker explains this constructed nature: “self-portraits can never portray the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their creator, and neither are they intended to do so.” 
Linda Haverty Rugg explores the topic of photography in relation to autobiographical writing in her book Picturing Ourselves. She asks, with self-portraiture in mind, if photos are “evidence of the existence of things or people in the world” or “constructions, manipulable and manipulative, masquerading as fact.” This paper posits that self-portraiture and portraits of the self in photography must be analyzed with a critical eye because of the very questions that Rugg poses. Photographs can be manipulated and manipulative, and representing oneself in a photograph is only different in that the person doing the manipulating is also the subject of the photograph. In spite of this potential for masquerade, photography is useful in “re-anchoring the subject in the physical world” by insisting on the verifiable presence of an embodied and solid individual.” In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes compares photography to painting to illustrate this revolutionary function of photography: “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. Painting can feign reality without having seen it.” Barthes asserts that “every photograph is a certificate of presence.”
The tension between photographs (and by extension photographic self-portraits and portraits of the self) as manipulable and manipulative, and simultaneously as certificates of presence, points to the importance of perception. Self-portraits are sites of “reciprocal exchange where the ‘past’ subject (the artist) comes alive through the ‘present’ memories of the viewer, who responds in particular ways to the artist’s self-performance as captured in the image via a face conveyed through a conglomeration of telling details.” This means the way in which photographs are interpreted and understood is beyond the scope of what is “in” the photograph: “photographs are not simply the things they represent, but must be read through the culture that creates and consumes them.”
Social Practices around Photography Today
Technology is key to understanding the cultural milieu today in which self-portraiture and portraits of the self are so common. With the ubiquity of digital cameras, camera phones, and cameras on our computers, any person can be a photographer. Small and portable camera phones have arguably made self-portraiture easier to execute than in the past when cameras were more cumbersome and expensive. In their study “The Social Life of Cameraphone Images,” Van House and Davis “found a surprisingly large incidence” of self-portraits, “arm’s length images in which the camera is turned back on the photographer, made possible by the one-handed operation of cameraphones.”
Photographers today can also view their photographs instantly, without printing or developing them. Blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which either encourage photo sharing or depend entirely upon it, typically require the user to have some sort of “profile picture;” thus, it has become easy, socially accepted, and encouraged to take pictures of oneself and share them online. According to Ori Schwartz, “nowadays, millions and millions of self-portraits are published on websites as different as online albums, social networking sites (SNSs), dating sites, and blogs.” These websites have expanded the audience of photography for ordinary people. Schwartz summarizes the way in which we interact with photography today, explaining: “we are witnessing a shift from photographing others for self-consumption to documentation of self for consumption by others, in a way that serves the economic interests of the internet and mobile communication industries that developed these platforms.” The ability to take and share photographs of ourselves online marks a change in communication patterns. Instead of a handful of photographers producing and sharing their photographs, there are now millions, if not billions of photographers, and “instead of one to many communication, we now have many to many, or few to few.”
The accessibility of photography is drastically different from the early days of photography, when relatively few people had access to cameras or the skill and financial means to operate them and develop photographs. There are several examples of historical figures that showed obsessive tendencies of self-representation similar to those prevalent today. I will look to the nineteenth century examples of the Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain to draw parallels between their narcissistic inclinations and fixation on self-marketing, and the behavior of users of digital photography, blogs, and popular social networking sites today. Self-portraiture and portraits of the self, which were created by both the Countess and Twain, and are prioritized on blogs and sites like Facebook “can highlight how self-obsessed a person can become.” This obsession with self-representation, regardless of time, brings up important questions about concepts of beauty and the body, visual representations of the feminine, truth in photography, impulses driving self-marketing, and social practices around photography.
Historical Examples of Portraits of the Self
The Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain both provide historical cases of individuals who forged “a photographic self-image through canny manipulation of photographers and the economic and cultural institutions surrounding the production and publication of photography, thus maintaining a kind of ‘authorship’ of self-image.” This type of “authorship” is evident in portraits of the self online, particularly on blogs and sites like Facebook, where individuals can display hundreds or thousands of photographs of themselves and choose which to include, exclude, or highlight.
The Countess de Castiglione was an Italian aristocrat and “a full-blown 19th century narcissist with unlimited access to a camera,” who had over “400 photographs of herself taken by Mayer & Pierson, a fancy studio in Paris that specializes in hand-colored photography” between 1856 and 1895. The Countess assumed roles in her photography sessions including a nun, Medea, Lady Macbeth, and Goya’s “Maja.” This posing and self-representation not only demonstrate an obsession with her image, but also her awareness “of the necessity for control, a concern to use the camera rather than let the camera use her.” In those early days of photography, taking such a large number of photographs required great dedication and a significant amount of time and effort.  The interest in her own image and looks also indicates that the Countess was in the “calculated business of creating a public persona, formulating her own legend.”
The practice of posing and creating a public persona in portraits of the self carries over well into contemporary practices of sharing self-representational images online. It also highlights the question of truth and accuracy in photographic portrayals of the self. The Countess remained obsessed with her image even when “she was bald and toothless though she was hardly sixty.” She commissioned another series of photographs in which they used “camera magic, a century before Photoshop:” “she adorned herself with roses, covered up her baldness with a wig, and struggled into the costumes she had worn in her prime.”
The reference to Photoshop and the Countess’s use of props in front of the camera to give an illusion of youthful beauty demonstrates the ability of the photographer (or self-photographer) to manipulate reality in order to convey a certain message through the image. Of course, neither the photographer nor the photograph itself can determine how viewers will interpret and understand it, but there is nevertheless power in framing and setting up the shot. This means that certain representations can be misleading, especially because even today, “people still want photography, and autobiographical self-portraits in particular, to deliver some kind of truth.”
The American author Mark Twain also had an affinity for staging photographs of himself and a desire to control his image as much as possible. Twain effectively leveraged his portraits of the self, comprised of “more than five hundred individual photographic self-images.” These photographs, which he encouraged by going so far as to invite photographers into his bedroom, “propelled him into the visual and cultural awareness of people throughout the world, allowing him to overcome through photography the limitations imposed on texts by difficulties of translation.” Rugg asserts that Twain’s relationship with photography “and his obsessive production of self image reveals an awareness of posturing and imposture worthy of the postmodernist artist Cindy Sherman.”
Twain provides a fascinating example of someone who not only leveraged his portraits of the self effectively for his own material gain, but also of someone who found it important to attempt to control the photographs after they had been taken. Twain “kept a fierce watch on the publication and distribution of his photographic image, threatening photographers with legal action when he felt they had overstepped their bounds.” Twain’s recognition of the financial benefits of his photographic portraits of the self and desire to control the images is similar to bloggers who leverage their self-portraits or portraits of the self by creating a persona for economic gain. It is also similar to celebrities who publish their own images of themselves on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking sites in an effort to control how the public sees them.
Today’s Self-Portraits and Portraits of the Self
Today’s self-portraits and portraits of the self indeed have striking similarities in the issues and questions they inspire to those of the Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain. The impulse to craft and share a public persona, self-marketing, questions of truth and accuracy, narcissism, beauty, obsession, manipulation, and control, are all themes related to photographic self-representation that transcend time. What is different between those historical examples from the late nineteenth century and today can be summarized in a discussion of social practices of photography embedded in technology.
As mentioned above, the ubiquity and widespread use of digital cameras and the popularity of online platforms such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, have contributed to the fact that there are millions of self-portraits published and shared online. These technologies have enabled “lay people to take photos almost everywhere, at any time, free of charge, and make them available to wide audiences.” Anyone can be a photographer, and people often choose themselves as the subject of their photography. Additionally, the architecture of social networking sites like Facebook encourages the sharing of photographs of oneself.
It would be strange to have a Facebook profile without a picture of the profile owner and other photographs showing the owner doing a variety of activities. The model is “focused on online social interaction with offline acquaintances and used for the maintenance of social ties.” Pictures are an integral part of what makes Facebook interesting and engaging. The content of Instagram, a social networking site now owned by Facebook, consists entirely of photographs. Another model is that of Twitter, the micro-blogging site used by celebrities and normal people alike. On Twitter, users typically produce mostly textual content, called “tweets,” limited to 140 characters. Users can also tweet photographs. The audience can be offline acquaintances, but are often strangers.
Celebrities are expected to tweet photographic self-portraits and portraits of the self to share with their thousands and sometimes millions of followers and fans. These self-representational photographs can range from celebrities doing “normal” things like eating a hamburger (Figure 1), celebrating Barak Obama’s victory with a quick self-portrait with friends on a computer camera (Figure 2), to getting their hair done (Figure 3), to more sexualized lingerie type photos (Figure 4),  which are reminiscent of the objectification of women in advertisements and clearly correspond to images of women as sexual objects. Figures 1 through 4 are examples of celebrity tweets of photographic self-portraits and portraits of the self. Figure 1 depicts the model Heidi Klum happily eating a hamburger from McDonald’s in full makeup and a gown. Figure 2 shows the singer Lady Gaga smiling with four friends in front of what appears to be a computer camera. She has pink hair, full makeup, and four other people surrounding her and smiling. In Figure 3, the actress and singer Miley Cyrus is shown sitting in a salon chair getting her hair washed. She is also holding a puppy in one hand, while holding out a camera to take a picture of herself with her other hand. Finally, the singer Rihanna can be seen in Figure 4 in high heeled black ankle boots and stockings that expose her bottom. She is posing on a couch with one leg outstretched, covering her bare breasts with her arm. Her expression appears to be blissfully relaxed. As social network site users, these celebrities “produce and market…representations of themselves,” rendering “questions of taste and identity (typical to the arena of consumption)” questions of “great import.”
Fashion blogging is a particularly interesting example of the importance of taste and identity, and a clear instance of persona-shaping through portraits of the self, usually for economic gain. Fashion and style blogs typically have outfit posts in which the blogger posts photographs of herself in an outfit she has styled. If a blogger is successful in representing herself as stylish and attractive, she can gain followers. Advertisers and brands have realized the potential to reach audiences through these popular blogs, so bloggers have essentially become businesswomen through their skillful control of their own images. Successful bloggers now have agencies for “brokering endorsement deals with fashion labels, signing up advertisers and, in some cases, booking lucrative television commercials.” Like Mark Twain, popular fashion and style bloggers realize the monetary value of carefully crafting and controlling portraits of the self.
Parallels between the Countess, Twain, and Popular Self-Representation Today
In a broad sense, there are critical parallels to draw between the portraits of the self of the Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain, and the trends in self portraiture online today. The most evident parallel is based on a desire for positive self-marketing and self-branding. The Countess and Twain both saw the potential for fulfilling narcissistic desires through photography—sharing his image to gain popularity and money in the case of Twain, and sharing her image to show off her beauty and creativity in the case of the Countess. The popular use of blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter likewise reveals a desire of users to “gain a representation of themselves as attractive and glamorous;” for, “photos and blog-posts should only make you look good and cool.”
This desire to look attractive in portraits of the self is particularly significant when analyzing images of women such as the Countess and style and fashion bloggers. These images bring up questions about deeply held and socially engrained notions of beauty and the portrayal of the feminine in images. Although some argue that self-portraits and portraits of the self can be empowering for women, I believe that notion to be true only for those women (usually feminists and/or artists) who are actively conscious of, and opposed to, the representation of women as objects in art and advertising. Ina Loewenberg, for example, writes about her own photographic self-portraits and those of women artists, asserting “there is a special incentive for women artists to practice self-portraiture. Women have been so frequently used as subjects (for which we can read ‘objects’) in the arts, including photography, that self-portraiture is a way to keep control of their own representation.” Jill Walker expresses a similar sentiment in her essay exploring photographing the self on digital cameras, “Mirrors and Shadows: the Digital Aestheticisation of Oneself.” Walker states that “self-portraits capture us differently from portraits taken of us by others” and that digital photography of the self allows us to “express ourselves rather than simply allowing ourselves to be described by others.”
The self portraits and portraits of the self of the Countess de Castiglione and women style and fashion bloggers may indeed indicate a degree of power or control for the women taking or directing the capturing of their own image. However, these examples also demonstrate an obsession with beauty and fulfilling society’s aesthetic expectations of women. The Countess’s “vanity was as famous as her beauty. She sent portraits to friends and admirers.” Solomon-Godeau argues that the images of the Countess must be read symptomatically because “they are the personal expression of an individual woman’s investment in her image—in herself as image.” In the context of the mid-nineteenth century culture, her behavior was unusual but understandable: “Granted that the nineteenth century culturally manifests a heightened fetishization of the woman’s body, it is equally important to acknowledge that it is also the period that witnesses the penetration of the commodity into all spheres of life.” The Countess’s obsession with her image and crafting her persona is thus linked to society’s emphasis, fetishization, and commodification of the woman’s body.
Style and fashion bloggers are only successful if they are attractive to their audiences. These standards today are largely determined by advertising and mass media portrayals of “woman as spectacle.” Advertising has “unambiguously conflated the image of the woman with the commodity.” In fashion and style blogs, women are wearing the commodities, and simultaneously carefully crafting an image or persona of themselves. This persona, when successfully constructed, likewise renders the bloggers attractive commodities.
Figures 5-7 are photographic portraits of the self of three major bloggers who regularly post high quality, carefully composed photographs of themselves in methodically styled outfits. Figure 5 depicts the blogger of “Song of Style” in an outfit post entitled “Tropical in South Beach Miami.”  The blogger is posing with perfectly styled wavy hair, one arm up, sunglasses, and a sultry open-mouthed look, wearing only a bikini top and short shorts. She is barefoot at the beach, fingering the leaves of a palm tree. Figure 6 shows the blogger of “Cupcakes and Cashmere” in her post “Scalloped Leather.”  She is sitting on a ledge in a short leather skirt, booties, and a tee shirt. Her positioning, sideways in relation to the camera, emphasizes her bare legs. She is looking down and has her fingers touching her mouth. Her purse and jacket are placed carefully next to her. Figure 7 shows a photograph from the blog “Atlantic Pacific” entitled “Summer Revisited.”  The blogger is wearing a short multi-colored dress with a belted waist, high heels, and oversized sunglasses. She has one hand lightly touching her own cheek, and the other holding a small clutch to her upper thigh. She is facing the camera and one knee is slightly bent. All three of the bloggers are attractive women who appear to be in their twenties. All three also have advertisements on their blogs, and arrangements with brands to showcase their merchandise in outfit posts. Popular bloggers can become “tastemakers and savvy marketers who can command four- and five-figure fees from brands.” The author of “Reconsidering Erotic Photography,” which explains photography’s place in the relationship between women and commodities, reinforces this idea: “the conscription of images of women to and for the purveyal of commodities has been a cultural development of enormous significance and one in which photography has been a crucial agent.” As a woman, the Countess was judged by her looks. So too are women bloggers today.
While women users of Facebook and Twitter may not necessarily financially capitalize on their self-portraits or portraits of the self, these images likewise “often mimic conventions of mass media or stereotypical feminine poses.” A popular type of image among girls’ self-portraits online is an example of a stereotypical feminine pose. The arms-length images are “taken from a high angle, with the girl holding her mobile phone in an outstretched hand above her head,” and are “advantageous both for the production process (it’s easier to take a self-portrait this way, without having to use a timer) and for the product (accentuating the breasts and hiding the belly).” These types of images are clearly influenced by a desire to appear attractive according to conventions of beauty and femininity.
Another approach to understanding the popularity of the practice of taking and sharing self-portraits or portraits of the self is decidedly less negative. This alternative approach is more focused on the expressive and exploratory qualities of this type of photography. Besides the previously mentioned fact that self-portraits and portraits of the self allow the subject to control his or her own representation (to a certain degree), reflexive photographic depictions of the self can be empowering for artists. Because it is not the most common type of self-portrait or portrait of the self, however, I will not delve into artistic photographic self-performance. This artistic performance is nevertheless significant in exploring issues of subjectivity, meaning in representation, and in “playing out the instabilities of human existence and identity.”
A more common manifestation of the explorative qualities of self-representational photography is photographing oneself first and foremost for one’s own consumption. While these photographs may be later shared, Jill Walker explains that self-portraits can first be a tool for self-discovery. She explains: “when I gaze enraptured at the image of my own legs walking on the tiny screen on my digital camera, I am not discovering my own self for the first time. Perhaps, though, I am discovering a version of my digital self that I had not before been acquainted with.” Photographic self-portraits of different parts of the body from angles that we cannot see with mirrors can also be part of this discovery. Walker asserts that “part of the fascination in photographing yourself is the surprising representations of yourself;” “once you have seen yourself as an aestheticised object, both yourself and other, that vision of yourself is available to you whenever you like.” Barthes reinforces this idea by declaring, “the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face.”
Related to the idea of empowerment through managing self-representations are the concepts of control and authorship. In her study of Mark Twain and August Strindberg’s production of self-images and autobiographical work, Rugg describes how “an essential uncertainty about the image-out-of-control and the problem of the all-seeing Eye” provoke “a hyperproduction of images.” Twain and Strindberg attempted “to harness the undeniable power of the photographic image for their own use in self-production.” This sentiment effectively demonstrates the perception that self-representation in photography is powerful and that one should try to control it.
The excessive number of self-portraits and portraits of the self online suggest a similar hyperproduction of images, perhaps stemming from a similar fear of loss of control. Once a photograph is published online, the person publishing it effectively loses control of it. The photograph is digital and shared online. The person sharing it does not have a physical copy that he or she can destroy. With the right skills and access, it can potentially be retrieved at any time, even after a user deletes it from his or her profile. This reality is certainly good reason for fear of loss of control of our images.
Taking a step backwards, however, there is a more basic fear of loss of control that Twain and Strindberg also experienced. This loss is based in the simple act of viewing photographs. Whether or not the actual “taking” of the photograph is done by the subject of the self-portrait or portrait of the self, the understanding and interpretation of the photograph remain in the control of the viewer. Amelia Jones describes this inevitable loss of control for the photographer and/or subject: “the photographic self-portrait is like history or the memory that forms it: it never stands still but, rather, takes its meaning from an infinite stream of future engagements wherein new desires and fascinations produce new contours understood as performative.” The inherent “loss of control” in producing and sharing photographic self-portraits and portraits of the self has not changed in the digital age. It has stopped neither nineteenth century aficionados of the self-image, including the Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain, nor the present day publishers of digital photographic self-representations from taking (or directing) and sharing numerous photographs.
The impulse to take self-portraits or portraits of the self on cameras has existed since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century. Indeed, self-portraits in art existed long before the advent of photography. Seeing images of the self seems to be a deeply rooted psychological impulse. This can be done for a variety and combination of reasons. Some self-portraits are motivated by narcissism, some by self-discovery, some by self-expression, and still others by a desire to self-market for recognition and even economic gain.
Because these desires have remained the same, it is easy to draw parallels between notable early lovers of the self-portrait and portraits of the self, like the Countess de Castiglione and Mark Twain, and today’s producers of digital photographic self-representations. Matters of truth and accuracy in photographic representation, agency in representation, socially enforced constructs of beauty, and loss of control of our images persist.
What has changed is scale and social practices, enabled by new technologies. The technologies of the digital camera and cameraphone have made photography easy, cheap, and accessible. Online platforms like blogs, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have made it simple and desirable to share photographs of the self, and simultaneously construct an online identity. Using these platforms, “contemporary media-users turned into produsers/prosumers who produce and distribute cultural products (photos, graphics and texts).” Creating a persona and marketing it to others, however, is no different than what the Countess and Twain did over one hundred years ago, albeit through different means and modes of distribution.
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