In 2006, Apple began including built-in cameras and the Photo Booth application on the MacBook, an upgrade not available in the previous iBook line. These laptops were extremely popular among inbound college freshman, like myself at the time, especially those arriving at private liberal arts or art schools. The upgraded technology captured many “spontaneous” poses between friends but also the quieter, self-reflexive hours spent alone in front of the screen. Never before has history or the internet been so flush with documents of young American inertia.
Photo Booth has transformed modern self-awareness by supplying us with a cache of semi-permanent self-portraits. The photos are somehow more honest than those in a conventional mirror, as we now spend more time at our computers than in any other setting. It is laudable to ignore the tiny, ever-present lens on your laptop, but the type of person who outwardly prides him or herself on never having opened the application is almost as pretentious as the person who claims to be disinterested in his or her own reflection. The crime of owning too many mirrors is equal to that of feigning blindness.
If you are a student, ex-student, or now unemployed, you have most likely used Photo Booth to capture your non-essential moments. You may look at your likeness on the screen and might think quizzically this is how my computer sees me or during a bleaker moment this is what I look like for the majority of my day. Unlike other personal photography, these images are not records of cherished relationships and important events. The focus is on the banal and cosmetic. They allow you to study your eyeliner, the angles that suit you best and your general disposition.
It is a pleasing revelation when you learn that everyone you know is participating in this same documentary. The scene goes something like this:
Your friend also owns a Mac and they have asked you to put on some music while they step out of the room. Your intention might have been as innocent as to check yourself out before their return, but you find yourself doing what you know you should not. Once inside, you cannot help but excavate another person’s private moments. You’re not sure if it is better or worse that this person you are examining is your close friend.
You browse the album of photos that were not instantly deleted. Your friend is a creature of habit and the scenery is immediately recognizable. He is in his bedroom, sitting in the same chair or on the bed where you are currently are, or his former bedroom from a past apartment, or the Bobst library. The background is relatively unchanged as is your friend’s expression.
If your friend is a straight male, there are probably only a few photographs, if any at all. The only thing that seems to vary is the color and sleeve-length of his shirt. Based on these details you can vaguely detect the season it was when the photo was taken. If he has a beard, you can see its growth progression. If you are lucky, you might be able to scroll through all of the photos like a time-lapse film. After seeing this, you may be reminded of the popular YouTube video by Noah Kalina, the guy who took a self-portrait everyday for six years, or the parody featuring Homer Simpson. (Kalina and friends have capitalized the meme and our generation’s self-obsession by developing an iPhone app that allows the user to perfectly align their face in the frame).
If your friend is a girl, there is a little more variety in her hairstyles and outfits. She may also have some full-body shots of her wearing heels or pictures of her holding up props within arm’s length of her desk (pencils, books, records, bongs, etc). Be warned, it is possible there are some potentially embarrassing photos of her semi-nude either alone or with a boyfriend. The word “embarrassing” is used lightly and, of course, without judgment. For some reason, unearthing a revealing photo is more likely if she is single.
A few minutes have gone by and you feel bored or guilty about your discovery and decide to quit before you’ve seen too much. You hear your friend approaching and press CMD+Q. It is up to you whether you acknowledge the photos in conversation. Most likely you will not.