I am one of those people who have never especially liked having their photograph taken. Maybe it’s the perceived lack of control, or being a child of the analog era when photos were mostly snapshots and amateur photographers lacked access to the technology and skill set necessary to create many multiple images that could be carefully edited and touched up with nifty post-production tools. Imagine a world without visual choice, where the first image taken was the only one that would be circulated or, worse, published and archived for posterity. Wouldn’t you love to see an Instagram feed of unedited selfies taken on the first try and published without the subject’s approval?
In many ways, that is the difference between the selfie culture we see today versus the portrait culture of the past. The element of agency and being both the subject and object of an image is a very new dynamic in the world of visual culture. Admittedly, even I have warmed to taking and posting the occasional selfie. Watching how people have engaged with the new Google Arts and Culture App has been eye-opening to me in this regard. Simple in its premise, but powerful in its outcome, the app instructs users to take a selfie and then be matched (using careful algorithms matching facial dimensions, colour, and composition using a highest degree system) to painted portraits in art collections part of the Google Arts Project.
I first took notice of the app when my Twitter feed began to be populated with comments about how the new Google app was making users feel very humble and reflective about their appearance. Most people reluctantly accepted their first matches without much reservation. Some women were amused at how their selfie morphed into a male match, others noted a best match that focused on one over-emphasized facial feature, or worse, matched them to someone much older and/or less attractive. Over the next few days, however, I noticed an uptick in experimentation as users realized that they could generate multiple matches by manipulating the algorithm with different poses, lighting, colours in the background, or even photographing old selfies versus “live” selfies. In other words, control and agency had entered back into the equation, along with the potential for gender fluidity and cross-cultural play. This I found especially telling with younger users who simply rejected anything less than a portrait match they found pleasing.
Looking back at art history, portraiture has long been utilized by artists to capture something beyond the sitter’s capacity to see with their own eyes. Because portraits were mostly reserved for the wealthy and elite (who could afford or have the status necessary to be painted), the images were mostly made to flatter and immortalize the subject, but they could also be met with surprise or outright disapproval when the artist took license or dared to tell the truth about the sitter. I am reminded here of a fantastic historical reenactment, on a recent episode of The Crown, of Winston Churchill having his portrait painted late in life. The English artist Graham Sutherland was commissioned by both houses of the British government to paint a portrait commemorating Churchill’s 80th birthday. Sutherland, a modern artist, took greater liberties with the task than had been expected and ended up creating a representation that many declared made the great statesman look “dim-witted” and “weak.” The Crown episode focuses squarely on Churchill’s anxiety over the young painter making the portrait, further amplified in both real and metaphorical ways through the storyline of Churchill’s suspicion of modernism and fear of losing control of his health and the Britain he loved. In the end, Churchill’s wife quietly burns the portrait in a private act of disapproval after its public presentation.
So the intersection of selfie culture with portrait culture is indeed an intriguing and potentially critical moment, and one that I am still thinking over. To be sure, the biggest criticism of the app to date has to do with its perceived diversity problem. Articles ranging from Mashable’s “The Google Arts and Culture app has a race problem” to TechCrunch’s “Why inclusion in the Google Arts and Culture selfie feature matters” and Digg’s “Is Google’s Arts and Culture App Racist?” raise important questions. The problem, however, with much of the discourse has to do with a failure to understand the role and purpose of portraiture across art history. The painted portrait was not meant to reflect a diversity of peoples, and the very nature of European art history (the largest representative source in the Google Art Project) has been one of a history of erasures and exclusions, especially an underrepresentation of people of colour and other ethnicities. This of course is the burden and difficult legacy of art history that art historians unpack and use to promote critical and engaged visual literacy in the classroom. Unlike the selfie culture of today, which is rooted in the democratization of images and image circulation, the portrait culture of the past was limited and rife with cultural, social, and political stereotypes.
So what can be gained by this trendy new app? Is it simply appealing to our vanity, or can it be a tool of discovery and engagement? In my own initial match, I was pleasantly surprised to see something in the portrait chosen for me (interestingly, a contemporary self-portrait by a Russian artist named Yulia Sopina close to me in age) that captured far more than a mimetic copy. As one friend commented, “she has your ‘tude. It’s perfect!” I am hoping to find a way to use the tool in future courses and would love to hear from others about how they have interacted with it. If nothing else, we will be reminded once again how much easier it is to manipulate our own image today while discovering a whole new world of painted portraiture from the past.