002 Photo Sensitivity

Our selves on camera

Truth be told, I intuitively divide people’s comfort with cameras and with images of themselves into three broad stages. I think of these as loosely historically chronological, but really they describe existential states as much as actual historical periods. The academic in me winces at this kinds of generalization, but, sometimes a sweeping generalization opens doors that more timid and hedged, more qualified and researched opinions won’t.

Initially, a camera was an object in the world, but just that; it wasn’t especially transformative of the world as such. A person would go about their business “naturally” in front of it. Workers leaving the factory, for example, ignore the camera, or look at it—it doesn’t matter—the point is that we can see in early footage that the public often seemed to accord little importance to a camera in its midst. People’s movements captured on film at the end of the late 19th century and early 20th century have a beautiful lack of self-consciousness and a bodily self-regard that seems almost alien.

(The trend of “upscaling” very old film footage—often the originals are mislabeled as “videos”—is a bit ridiculous but of course the appeal is obvious. It’s translating an unfamiliar-feeling world into a more familiar visual texture to Internet viewers.)

After a few generations of this came what I think of as the second period. People acclimated to an overall sense of plenty when it came to images. Movies, magazines, television, newspapers with a lot of photography, billboards, it all made photographic and cinematographic images part of the everyday environment. This secondary, transitional period of the history coeval with camera images is, for me, quintessentially twentieth century. There are huge and vital dimensions to this; to get a sense of the more complete contours of this we’d have to go into mimetic theory, the spectacle, and colonial and imperial exploitation.

My subordinate hunch is that this second period is one of great tension between the image and selfhood. Here’s how I think of it. You’re used to photographic images, you understand how they work and even, perhaps, the many ways they are “constructed.” The source of the tension is that most people lack much of the know-how to pose “well” or to take a “good” photograph; there’s an element of mystification or competence that makes most people be a little too candid, too amateur, too stiff, or too formal. The pictures are imperfect and maybe that’s why they’re charming, with the derpy expression, the unconcealed overbite, the poor posture, the overeager grin, too much light, too little light, red-eye effect, and so on.

I think this condition of being predisposed toward unease before the camera also more readily allows pictures of people whose happiness looks (to me) spontaneous and unrehearsed. That’s the silver lining. Maybe this mass of second stage people who feel strange in front of the camera do so because it’s familiar but not yet familiar enough. You are forced to inhabit the discomfort and inadequacy of your own person.

In an environment where the photogenic-telegenic image is scarce, a person who has this quality commands extra power. I’m reminded of a story about Marilyn Monroe on the set of Clash by Night:

A telling anecdote was recorded by a friend of hers, gossip columnist James Bacon, about the shooting of Fritz Lang’s 1952 Clash by Night, before she became a star: “I watched Marilyn spoil 27 takes of a scene one day. She had only one line, but before she could deliver it about 20 other actors had to go through a whole series of intricate movements on a boat. Everybody was letter perfect in every take, but Marilyn could not remember that one line. . . . Finally she got it right and Fritz yelled: ‘Thank God. Print it.’ Later, in her dressing room, Marilyn confessed that she had muffed the line on purpose for all those takes: ‘I just didn’t like the way the scene was going. When I liked it, I said the line perfectly.'”

Monroe exerted what control she could from her position. (As noted, this was before her star really shone.) I wonder how that will continue to develop as more and more people are comfortable with making and disseminating images of themselves, comfortable on camera. Presumably that kind of “influence” will fade because it’s abundant, to be replaced by scarcer forms of leverage.

This of course ushers in the third stage. Third stage people are not only raised in an environment of ubiquitous automatic/photographic images, but they can reasonably expect to produce a lot of these images theirselves, and to see and edit them instantly. That’s crucial. Disposable cameras and Polaroids meant that images were cheap in the late twentieth century, but they were a step away from what we have now. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, explains that he’s not a photographer because he’s too impatient—he wants to see right away what he’s made. (“Polaroid?” he writes, “Fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved.”) Anyone with a smartphone now has a camera and software for instant audiovisual feedback. The body responds, and learns to yearn to respond, to what’s displayed on the device in front of it.

This is why so many people now have a knack for photography without studying it formally. This is why so many people are skilled at posing and taking selfies. People know what their good angles and facial expressions are; they keep them in their muscle memory. We have terms for phenomena like duck face, soy face, and fish gape. I think these special kinds of stock poses and bodily “technologies” have only expanded and deepened in the last two decades.

Now I instinctively think of certain faces and expressions, certain gestures and certain ways of being in one’s own body, as “products” of Instagram, Vine, TikTok, etc. I may be wrong. Certainly if I were to make an extended argument I’d do more research, read and revisit more theoretical work, look at studies, consider more specific examples and counter-examples. But it’s been a persistent feeling. I think it’s because I’m a vestige of the second stage, and I’m seeing the third stage establish its dominance.