By Sara Head
While sifting through the inundation of open letters penned by middle-aged white men that flood the internet, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the popular assertion that Millennials are sending the world into a downward spiral. “Self-absorbed, narcissistic, and entitled!” they proclaim, waving their fists in a perfect impression of a character straight out of Bye Bye Birdie. “Kids these days!”
To the naked eye, this ire proves not unfounded. Selfies alone are enough of a cultural phenomenon to provide a worthy case study. It is true that there is no lack of material for critics to review—any given social media platform is drowning in a colorful array of images. However, the notion that the amateur self-portraits are merely a practice in egoism leaves space for contention. Young people are indeed taking a vast quantity of photographs of themselves, but can it be chalked up to a groupthink of pure vanity?
It is worthwhile to consider that these images carve out a niche genre for themselves, somewhere between self-portraiture and documentary photography. They serve as a digital passport stamp, tangible proof of one’s existence in a certain place, at a certain time, with certain people. They form a collective record of life, enabled by the technological proliferation the Millennial generation has grown up alongside, but the inclusion of the self shifts the images away from pure documentation.
While an argument can be made that young people are overly concerned with image, given the length they go to achieve an aesthetically ideal photograph of themselves to share online with the world, it is worth considering selfies as a practice in self-esteem and self-representation. People are now faced with a large amount of control over the manner in which they present themselves to others. Social media has opened people’s lives and granted public access. In the wake of this scrutiny, Millennials have taken the situation by the head and found a form of empowerment in the opportunity to author their own identities before the eyes of a very public audience.
The accessibility of quality camera technology that has sprung into existence within the past decade has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for this new phenomenon. However, the stern finger pointed at the current generation of rising young adults invites curiosity about just how radical the selfie revolution truly is. The digital age is surely unprecedented in terms of rapid-fire innovation, but perhaps selfies are something that have been within us all along.
Take, for example, the once-infamous Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione. Born in 1837, the socialite lived through the earliest iterations of photographic technology—predating snapshot photography by several decades—and perhaps serves as a precursor to our current selfie fanaticism.
Strikingly similar in status to contemporary Professional Celebrity Kim Kardashian, the Countess earned her notoriety through scandal, acting as mistress to Napoleon III for political purposes and known in the Parisian Court as the most beautiful woman of the age. During her lifetime, she was the cause of many a sensation among the wealthy elite, but posthumously her greatest legacy is the collection of over four hundred photographic portraits that she made of herself between 1856 and 1895. The technology did not exist at the time to permit her to singlehandedly star in the photographs and simultaneously operate the camera, but the countess cultivated a longstanding relationship with portrait photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson of the Mayer & Pierson studio, enabling her an unprecedented amount of creative control over the images at the time.
The photographs ranged from traditional cartes-de-visite and studio shots, to extravagant, hand-painted records of her most audacious public appearances and costumes, to a handful of downright bizarre images within her temporal context—a striking portrait in which she gazes dramatically through a picture frame, a shocking collection of photographs of her exposed legs.
She may not have been behind the camera, but the countess acted as a sort of artistic director for her portraits in dictating the costume and setting, composition, and camera angle, and by involving herself in post-editing, having the plates pigmented and adding hand-painted backgrounds to the studio setting. The photographs, though anomalous for the time both in quantity and style, indicate an underlying desire for self-authorship and memorialization that seems to be echoed in modern perspectives on image-culture. In the mid-nineteenth century, a collection of ‘selfies’ required time, money, and creative drive that escaped the average individual, but in a new period of accessibility, Millennials seem to have arrived in a place far less unpredictable than it would originally seem.
Article © Sara Head