A woman gazes from her black and white setting as she leans against a motorcycle. She wears a pair of overalls and a collared blouse. Her hair, carefully pinned to accentuate her soft curls, greyed from light exposure and time passed. My grandmother peers from the black and white portrait: refined and elegant.
This was a Kodak moment; a moment of significance meant to be captured. Photography in the past held importance and reflected careful composition. A treasured and sacred element existed in collectively flipping through the family photo album. This archaic family tradition died with the commodity of effortlessly swiping through photos on a screen. Photography has evolved from the rare moment of capturing a select event to a daily obsession we produce in mass.
The Kodak moment, adorned with preparations and the careful positioning of the tripod, forfeited to the ‘Instagram moment’. Photography in the Instagram generation no longer requires an occasion. Instead, day-to-day, minute-to-minute activities are judged based on their ‘Insta’ potential.
Selfie [noun, un-gendered]: a photograph in which the photographer is simultaneously the subject of the frame; such photos often utilized mirrors, or feature the elongated, stretched arm of the subject in the corner of the frame; such photographs are taken with the primary intention of posting them on at least one form of social media. Selfies are generally taken with varying technology from true photography, utilizing digital smart phones, or computer webcams.
A veteran of the selfie, my roommate sits across from me, slumped on the couch and holding her phone parallel to her face. She contorts her face – widening her eyes, scrunching her nose, making a surprised and coy expression with her lips. When I ask about her actions, she scoffs at my naivety.
“Uhm, I’m snapchatting.”
As she continues to ‘snap’, a message made up solely of a photo—usually one of self-involved subject matter, my apparent stupidity hits me in the face. My roommate is a ‘Selfie Connoisseur’. Her online persona is defined by various multitudes of selfies, where in each photo she would portray one of the following expressions: sassy, sexy, happy, posh, or gangster. This new subject matter of the self now encompasses a message with no text necessary; “You only need to see my face,” reads as the underlying script that comes with exchanging ‘snaps’.
Our need to document our appearance and display it for others stems from our latent narcissism. This is not a new development in the human psyche. Look to Caravaggio’s Narcissus, from the Renaissance period. In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissism embodies the self-gratification of our own physical attributes.
Such narcissistic expressions surround us, both on the screens of our addicting social interfaces, and the people next to us on the city bus. We take photos of ourselves out of admiration with the assumption that the photos interest our friends, or ‘fans’. No different from Narcissus’ admiration of himself in the puddle, and believing that if he loved himself to such an extent, others would as well.
That portrait of my grandmother could prove rare in today’s generation of self-obsessed, self-proclaimed photographers. Such a photo took skill, practice, lighting, and education. Why go to the efforts of hiring a photographer when we can crane our arm out, and ‘say cheese’ for our cell phone? The once sacred ‘Kodak moment’ now wiped out, with it the sacristy of its photographers, taken over by the Industrial Revolution of the photograph and all-to-common ‘Instagram moment’.
The art of photography flooded with works of mundane, non-descript events, believed equal to the professional and tasteful works of Ansel Adams, Cecil Beaton or Annie Leibovitz. This popularized Instagram platform means we don’t need to marvel at the works of such practiced photographers – we have become the photographers; filters need only be applied.
As I walk down Front Street, I must dodge a group of adolescent girls stopped in the middle of the sidewalk with their necks craned up towards the monumental CN Tower. Above their heads they each hold their smartphones, holding still while they capture the unchanging structure. Without budging from their positions, I see their fingers swiping, no doubt testing each Instagram filter; this group of girls embodied ‘Filter Artists’. Perhaps Valencia? Sierra? Sutro? Each photo they Instagram surely varies only slightly – capturing in multiple neither an occasion nor celebration, nor do they reflect the practice the photographical.
We take photos with the intention to impress, as opposed to documenting our note-worthy, treasured moments. Photography or ‘selfie’ portraits no longer need the excuse of a memorable moment; got your daily cup of coffee this morning? Snap it. Read the newspaper on the train? Instagram it. Walked down an empty street that resembles an utterly idyllic and utopian state? Slap a filter over it to give the photo a sepia hue, and call yourself a photographer.
The seldom and treasured Kodak moment was practiced with taste by our parents. Portraits like these were taken as our parents came-of-age and developed. What can we say about the photographs we take today? I hesitate to call it photography, for fear of encouraging the movement. Were our grandchildren to see our over-documented photographs, would they see grace and poise? Upstanding men they call grandpa? More likely our Instagram moments, in their multiplicity, show the growth and breadth of our vainglory, our self-interest, and our need for validation.