There’s never a bad time to take a selfie, although bathroom stalls are the ideal location. The self-portrait takes more planning, posing, and consideration, but, like the selfie, it will forever serve as a mirrored reflection of its moment. Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture at Rutger University’s Zimmerli Art Museum considers some 200 years (c. 1800 to the present) of the portrait’s history in mediums two-, three- and four-dimensional, with 130 works by approximately 80 artists. Curators Susan Sidlauskas, professor and graduate director in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, and Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s liaison for academic programs and curator, examine individual, double, and group portraits, using social media as a critical lens. Before leaving the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to capture their own images in a photo booth. We got in touch with Gustafson and Sidlauskas over email to get a snapshot of the show.
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Alicia Eler: How did you first become aware of selfies? As art historians, what was your initial reaction to them?
Susan Sidlauskas: I regret to admit that I hadn’t known until this past summer that “selfies” existed as a genre — a far more nuanced and complex genre than I’d realized. (I knew about the perpetual smartphone picture taking and talked about it often with my students and my daughters). The word was off-putting at first because it sounded cutesie. But now I’m really interested to see how the selfie throws yet another wrench into some age-old questions: What is the real? What’s identity? What is medium? Some critics/historians say we live in a “post-medium” age. Lots of these issues have caused controversy before — in the mid 19th century people asked about photography: Is it art? Is it document? Is it better than painting? Will photography kill painting? And more recently with the digital revolution, which is a very tricky topic in contemporary photo theory these days.
Donna Gustafson: I first became aware of selfies as a sort of coherent visual device when I was searching the internet looking for contemporary portraits as part of my research for this exhibition. The first ones that I paid attention to were the selfies that people were posting of themselves at museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There were two types: One was people finding their doubles in the gallery and posting themselves in front of a work of art that looked like them. The second was a more general trend of people posting pictures of themselves with their favorite works of art.
I was looking for contemporary uses of portraiture in everyday life, but was also looking for ways to incorporate everyday life into the exhibition that we were planning (we decided to build a photo-booth and post pictures online). I was also reading the series of articles you wrote that connected selfies to the history of portraiture. (I think you were the only one who was taking selfies as a subject of art). Since Susan and I were interested in making portraiture relevant to contemporary issues and ideas, we both thought a lot about portraits in everyday life and how portraiture had changed, especially after photography. As an art historian, I think my initial reaction to them was that they were like a new kind of vernacular — sort of like a new invention of the19th century cartes-de-visite. I still think of them that way. I also love that selfies are so disposable — you can continually remake and update your self-portrait, so you are never tied to one image of yourself.
AE: In the press release for the exhibition, you raise the question, “What is the difference between a photograph taken by an artist and one shot by a teenager with a smartphone?” What is the difference, in your opinion?
SS: We weren’t thinking here of “value” or “quality” but rather about speed and degrees of self-consciousness: say, the photo of Man Ray you discuss in one of your articles, with its careful composition and highly deliberate technique, vs. an instantly expendable photo taken with a smartphone (by anyone — doesn’t have to be a teenager) on the fly that could be posted and deleted in seconds. Because the selfie can be made in seconds and multiplied endlessly, it’s difficult to critique, although I can see that categories, “types,” are already emerging. One thing that really interests me about the smartphone is its physical attachment to the body (in most cases) — its role as a virtual body part. Yet it has none of the cyborg connotations I’d expect; rather, the opposite — an intense desire to convey or reinforce one’s humanity.
DG: Radically enough for art history, I would say that maybe there is no difference except in intention. I would say the artist invests the image with a great deal more thought and effort; the teenager’s smartphone photograph is probably much more spontaneous and is part of the experience at hand, not separated from the speed of everyday life through artistic process.
AE: Can you elaborate on your idea that all portraits are “social media”? This relates to my theory suggesting that selfies are more than a social-media phenomenon; instead, I view them as our contemporary way of considering other people, and the smartphone camera as our mirror, as documentation of the process of “becoming.” Technology has updated the way we can take self-portraits, but essentially it is a continuation. What’s your take on this?
SS: Even historically, a portrait is rarely something that has value if it’s not shared. Think of the ‘portrait’ of the single eye of the beloved, painted on ivory, carried inside her lover’s coat. It might not be displayed, but it’s a physical connection to the absent one. So in that way, the selfie represents continuity — although its method, pace, and capacity for circulation is obviously very different. The making of the self in the confrontation with the ‘other’ is an old concept, too (Cézanne did a lot of that — often using his wife Hortense as his ‘other’). But the selfie accelerates and intensifies this process — wildly, making it far more fluid. It’s such a new genre that the big questions are just beginning to be framed, so it’s a great time to be writing about it.
DG: Susan and I were both interested in using the portrait as the center of a nexus of connections. For example, many early portraits (and even portraits today) were commissioned as an act of affection or were given in love (as Susan mentioned, eye portrait miniatures were secret tokens of love; portrait miniatures were small pictures of loved ones that people could carry around with them). We thought of portraits as personal objects, as connecting links between people or generations. In that way, portraits are social media: links and connections. In a way, we have all become artists now that photography has become a mass medium — we all take photographs of our loved ones (and our selves). The shift is perhaps that more formal portraits are documentation of our being; selfies are documentation of our becoming.
AE: Let’s talk about twin and double portraits. Here I’m thinking about Mary Ellen Mark’s “Shane and Shawn Riggins, 29 years old, Shane older by 3 minutes” (2001) and William Smith’s “Child with Doll” (1890s), which he shot for Zion’s Hill Studio in Sanford, Maine. Can you talk about the differences between twins as each other’s mirrors versus a girl’s doll as her mirror, and how that relates to your considerations of portraiture in the show?
DG: As I was researching and looking for loans to the show, I was getting more and more interested in the concept of the double portrait. On a visit to a collector’s house, I saw “Child with Doll” hanging on his wall and immediately decided to ask to borrow it and put together a group of double portraits that included couples of all types, people reflected in mirrors, twins, and sister portraits (I had started to notice that there were a lot of these and that it was an interesting subject within portraiture). I was looking for a fresh take on the portrait and deciding to do the show organized around groups of single, double, and group portraits made it all work. Susan agreed, and we decided that she would write on the group portrait, I would write on the double, and I asked Lee Seigel to write on the single portrait for the book.
Twins are an interesting subset of the double portrait, and there are twin portraits by Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, and a whole tradition of contemporary African twin portraits. Twins are of interest because they are sometimes unsettling, maybe because having two of the same seems to go against our ideas of individuality. And it complicates how to think of a person: are twins mirrors of each other, are they a pair, or are they two individuals more different than they appear at first look? I think we have an inherent discomfort with the copy in the age of genetic engineering that I think images of twins play into — this is exactly the power of the “Child with Doll,” my favorite work in the show. They may be mirrors of each other, but it is a flawed mirror in that the mirror is not correct or accurate. What is so interesting about it is that the child seems doll-like and the doll seems to be alive, as if they had exchanged identities. Even though we know that it is a doll and a child, the uncanny resemblance makes it really provocative, almost creepy, but in a very interesting way.
I wanted “Shane and Shawn” by Mary Ellen Mark exactly because of the illusion of mirroring. The twins are wearing the same shirt and because they lean into each other, they look as if one is a reflection. This is a purposeful mirroring that the twins and Mark intended. That makes it very interesting to me, but I’m not sure that all twins are mirrors. Twin portraits demand careful looking because after a while you see their differences — that is also interesting to me. Olu Oguibe and C. Angelo Michelli write about twin portraits in African photography, and the West African concept of twin-ness that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two people are twins. They may simply be friends who dress in the same clothes and have their portraits taken to express their special connection. That idea of twin portraiture was very important to me. You can choose to be a twin to express your closeness to another.
AE: Are there any selfies by teenagers in the exhibition?
SS: Actually, there are invented selfies (I don’t know if this counts as a legitimate selfie genre … ): Nikki Lee’s self-portraits. In most of them she represents herself as a teenage girl, having “become” (for the camera) a California skateboarder, a Japanese schoolgirl, a glamorous young Latina — all with the knowledge of the group she has infiltrated. We do have a piece that acts as a kind of ancestor to the selfie: 445 tiny, tin-framed black-and-white portraits taken by one man during the 1930s and ’40s, all laid out in the same case. They were taken at a “photomatic” booth, and we’re going to have one in the exhibition. So, in fact, the gallery can be the site for selfie production, although a different kind of circulation. If teenagers take photos of themselves using the photo booth, it’s a nice connection between the digital selfie and the historical forms that came before it.
Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture opens tomorrow, January 25, and runs through July 13 at Rutger University’s Zimmerli Art Museum (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ).