The rise of the #selfie and the propensity for everyone from David Cameron, Justin Bieber and the person sitting at the desk opposite you to turn the camera towards themselves, shift to capture themselves in the best light, add a filter, then send it out for validation via Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc, isn’t a new form of narcissism.
Despite the fact that it often seems like a thoroughly modern phenomenon (there’s 80+ million Instagram photos hashtagged #me and 30+ million hashtagged #selfie), the impulse to capture and share the most authentic ‘self’ has been around for a long time.
The reason the behaviour is so widespread now, is because so many people have the tools to capture, manipulate and distribute their self portrait immediately. With Instagram and many other filter options, everyone can be famous and glamorous in their own sphere of influence – whilst capturing exactly the right mood and atmosphere. Marketers have been all over this for a while now, trying to use it to best advantage with varying results.
Photo portraits apart, it’s interesting to look at some of the most well-known artists and examine the layers of emotive expression that characterised their state of mind when they painted self portraits of themselves. If the means to digitally capture and enhance the mood of their self portrait was available, who’s to say they wouldn’t have used a filter to convey it to a further degree?
Picasso’s self portrait in late 1901 is awash with personal confusion, heavy melancholy and a spirit which seems to be just about hanging on (which, of course, he was; the archetypal struggling artist, he was living on food parcels from friends at the time).
The feeling of the portrait is cold, sombre, wintery, and with an almost resigned air about the intensity of his gaze. Even though it’s a filter often used to add a feeling of crispness to architecture photos, Instagram’s Hudson, with its heightened shadows and icy tints, would have helped to elevate his sense of despair.
In an interview with art historian David Sylvester, Francis Bacon said: “I’ve done a lot of self portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself…I loathe my own face.” A late triptych, from 1980, would seem to reiterate this feeling. Enveloped by an unforgiving darkness, and no sense of background, the psychological intensity of Bacon is emphasised by the brutality of how his features are treated and the tightly constricted view.
Sutro would have been the ideal filter, with its ominous atmosphere and pronounced shadows. The rich, sinister textures of its dark exposure would have heightened the intensity of the picture and drawn the viewer in even more.
Oliver Cromwell, whilst not responsible for his own portrait, supposedly gave out one of the most well-known briefs: ‘…warts and all’. This kind of authenticity would have been something of a curveball to painter Sir Peter Lely, whose style was intended to flatter, even if Cromwell was well-known for his opposition to personal vanity.
As such, there’s no doubt which Instagram filter he would have used: none at all.
Jeremy Garner is the former executive creative director of Weapon7, and is now a creative consultant for Orange Digital