Introduction- Semiotics of Selfies

Gregory Paschalidis

Punctum, 4(2): 5-9, 2018
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2018.0016


Since the beginning of the new millennium, the near universal spread of camera-loaded smartphones and web photo sharing has led to the profuse growth of all the historically familiar genres of vernacular photography, such as family snapshots and photos of friends, travel and vacation photos, landscape and photo-booth photos. The first institution to be challenged by the smartphone camera-wielding multitudes was journalism, where we ’ve seen the massive invasion of amateur imagery into the prestigious terrain of ‘breaking news’ and documentary photography. The photojournalists’ response was to castigate the amateurs’ lack of the objectivity and ethical standards that give their profession its distinctive public value and significance. At least as much, if not more, controversy accompanied the astounding popularity of selfie-taking. If in the case of the omnipresent ‘accidental photo-reporter’ what was at stake was the moral status and legitimacy of photojournalism, in the case of the ubiquitous ‘accidental self-portraitist’ the stake was the moral status and legitimacy of the time-cherished institution of the self-portrait. With a pedigree that goes back to the cultural heroes of the Renaissance, the artist’s self-portrait is a visual genre that, both in painting and photography, is revered as a signature artwork, crucial for the self-fashioning of the artist as well as for the art-historical significance of his work. The artworld’s reaction is characteristically defensive. The exhibition This is not a Selfie at the San José Museum of Art (2017), comprising 80 photo self-portraits created by celebrated artists, aimed, according to the Museum’s curator Rory Padeken, at highlighting the importance of distinguishing between selfies and ‘the fine art genre of photographic self-portraiture’ (Artdaily 2017). His statement condenses the artworld’s resolve to deny any blurring of the borderlines between experts’ and laymen’s self-portraits. At the same time, the artworld has readily incorporated to the art-historical narrative various artists’ engagement with the bland, unpretentious aesthetics of photo-booth portaiture – like Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon or Cindy Sherman – and, more recently, the selfies made by Ai Weiwei, the self-confessed ‘best selfie artist’ (Sooke 2017).

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