ZedPipo: Headrests, Fauns, Selfies, Social Media

Looking at photographic portraits over time, in the early days, there was a fashion for formal studio portraits, of father, mother and children individually and together, in front of plate cameras needing head rests, clamps and posing stands: the steadying hand on the face becoming symbolic of intellectual thoughtfulness transcended to portrait painting, while the romantic faun-like backgrounds transcended from landscape painting. In those days, calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were around in the 1840s, were expensive but still cheaper than a painting. A cursory glance at past paintings and old photographs reveals there have been changes over time, in poses, clothing styles, demeanour, formality, conformance, hairstyles, makeup and look. Less clear but nonetheless true is the casualisation of the interpretation of the image in our own time: jeans can mean poverty-stricken labourer but more likely a rich entrepreneur.

Karaoke singer, LusakaKaraoke singer

With the arrival of the usable 35mm film camera from Leica in 1924, photojournalism and personal photography became more flexible and practical. Later, there was progression to mass photography, first with the Kodak Brownie, and then the Instamatic and other camera developments. Later still, the advance of digital photography eventually and swiftly combined with the mobile phone and social media to create an unprecedented democratization of portrait-based photography.

It is undoubtedly the mobile phone’s ‘selfie’ that has changed the world; it has revitalised and individualised the portrait and propelled it forward beyond all expectations. Although many may argue that an instant opportunistic selfie is not a work of art and is not comparable with a self-portrait by van Gogh, they could be wrong: as Brilliant says, ‘portraits are artworks, intentionally made of living or once living people by artists, in a variety of media, and for an audience.’

Although self-portraits were painted by many of the great artists, never have so many mobile phone self-portraits been taken by people. Further, and unlike the self-portraits of the great artists, the feature of selfies is that, almost by definition, the photograph shows the subject in the context of some environment, whether it is a pop concert or the Eiffel Tower, or a group of friends. While these portraits may never be seen except by the phone owners and their social media friends, they are more representative of personal identity than commissioned paintings or photographs, or photographs by friends, or the wedding and school photographs and family portraits that continue to be the staple business of commercial photographers. It is unfortunate that selfies may get posted but they are rarely printed and displayed.

In recent decades, swelling bureaucracy has used photographs for identification, in passports, driving licenses and identity cards, and on every internet-based social media site. During early bureaucratic developments there was a belief that physiognomics, the study of facial features, enabled classification of people, which it notably failed to do. As Brilliant (1991) observed, ‘failure to recognise the many physiognomic indicators compromises the viewer’s response to the portrait’.

This idea was unable to determine the correctness of an image anyway, and the ‘best’ portrait remains in the eye of the beholder. Photographs have been adopted by security services for identification purposes and the extent of surveillance is probably beyond anything we want to imagine, or the authorities are going to admit, but the portrait now pervades everything.

30-second slideshow

Cover of the photobook ZedPipo Livestock assistant Messenger Mastyer of Ceremonies Videographer Carpenters Fisherman Ground crew Chief pilot Walker Car mechanic Football supporter Rice miller Hip hop dancer Pop star

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, 2015

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