I am honored to be featured on the Creativist.io website as a Creative Leader. The Creativists are all about what they call “creative empowerment,” with a variety of different approaches. They say things like,
Creativity is a way of thinking that allows you to see possibilities.
Besides challenges and Paying it forwards, they feature interviews with “creative leaders,” of which I am apparently one. Before the interview, I looked over what other interviewees had said, and maybe it was just the mood I was in, but in that moment I felt tired of hearing about creativity rather than the thing itself.
So I answered the interviewer’s questions with a series of short digital stories, as it seemed to me I had already made stories out of all the primary issues. The result may not be as clever as I would wish as it would take a reader who might be dedicated to hearing/viewing/reading every golden word I said an hour to get through it all. And there are none among the short-attention-spanned populace who would actually do such a thing. Sigh. Fame, sweet bird of fleeting youth and all that.
But just for the record, just so I can look back in my fast-approaching dotage upon the immortal moment, here it is in giant, hot linked purple letters (clickety-click!):
I have a postcard from First Lady Michelle Obama that I really love. She and First Dog Bo are reclining on the East Lawn: she is holding her cell phone up in what is now the iconic pose of the selfie. She and Bo are both smiling at her cell phone, and I, for one, don’t think, “Oh, Michelle’s taking a selfie–she’s so self-absorbed and narcissistic.” I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of evidence in the selfie movement that leads my thinking in that direction, but that here is a vernacular genre of spontaneous self-expression born of roots in self-portraiture and evolving technologies.
Rather, I reflect first on Vincent Van Gogh, the Post Impressionist painter who did a whole series of self-portraits. When I look into the somewhat wild and lonely face that he portrays, I think less about his well-known history and more about the twin qualities of vision and loneliness, perhaps even bewilderment I see there. These are profoundly human emotions. And just as a little brush up on art history, a reminder that Van Gogh did not receive any critical attention during his lifetime to make him think his art would become a class marker of the upper crust. Very much like today’s millions of selfie takers, he felt alone, misunderstood, an unseen face among the masses of humans.
A self-portrait, a selfie says, if only to oneself, “I exist. Here I am. This is my handprint on the cave wall of my time and my world.”
I believe we are all desperate to be seen, to be acknowledged, and the selfies we take reflect the degree of maturity we have attained in our personal struggle to come to grips with that drive. Van Gogh painted himself with a ruthless honesty that inspires me to see in my own aging features the galactic pinwheels cartwheeling across the ordinary face of home.
I reflect, too, on Frida Kahlo. Injured as a young girl, she endured multiple surgeries and extended confinements throughout her life. In spite of being flat on her back in a hospital bed for months at a time, she was able to rig up a mirror and easel and find the drive to paint her own self-portrait using Surrealist techniques that put her own face front and center, surrounded often by the mechanisms of pain. Other Kahlo self-portraits connected her face to her Mexicanismo and German roots. Frida Kahlo’s eyes staring into mine tell me about courage in the face of biological obstacles, about passion for life, for partner, for history. For reflecting humanity and soul deep beauty, there is no greater mirror to the world than Kahlo’s selfies.
Self-portraits, and by extension, selfies, have a long and time-honored history as a vernacular genre, meaning “of the people.” Technology just gives more people the tools for self-expression. Big noses, tongues out, duck kisses, rude gestures; worse, selfies taken with homeless people or with coffins at funerals–inappropriate by many if not most standards, selfies, like all attempts at art, record the moment that is receding rapidly into the past. Those goofy kids will become parents or professionals with complex life patterns and fates far from the feckless moment of that stupid selfie. There will be a future moment where that picture and all the unique others, will fall into historical place for self, family, and archived history of a now faded past.
The selfie is a way of exploring how I am in the world. There is something in me that sees myself very differently than others do, and through photography, I can explore those shadows, those soul rooms of intimacy, memory, suffering, and sadness, as well as their bright opposites. The drive to self-portraiture is linked to the impulse to memoir, to the personal documentary video, to first person storytelling of all kinds. Teilhard de Chardin famously said:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience,”
and I think there is something in that, at least inasmuch as because I am in my body, I am the one person in the world I see the least of. What is this strange horse I ride called the human body? Yet, unlike a horse, my human body undergoes radical visual changes as I move through time, space, experience, DNA, and suffer the ungentle ravages of gravity.
In some ways, I don’t feel quite real because I can feel myself, but I can’t really see myself. The mirror image won’t stand still and anyway is all backward, and I can’t send it to my mother to reassure her that I’m still very much alive–the intent and destination of so many selfies. The self-portrait, the selfie does that–holds my image still–yet! in reverse! Am I never to see myself as I really am?
No matter how cheekily self-aware a selfie might be, they all have a quality of heart-breaking innocence about them. Rare is the mask that the camera or brush doesn’t penetrate with its frank, lucid gaze.
Michelle Obama and the dog have an air of mutual grace and fun as she holds up the cell phone camera to snap the image. This summer day in the middle of Obama’s second term is casual, so ephemeral. The portrait of the two of them is so intimate. Then the whole world rushes onward: the dog will die, Michelle will grow old and die, and the selfie, the self-portrait of the two of them, happy and in tune with each other and the world, will remain for other sympathetic eyes looking back through time.
I am wary of critics who seem to confuse self-representation with self-regard. Before selfies came along to bend the popular conception of self-portraiture toward youthful narcissism, the general consensus was that self portraits were, indeed, meant to bring the viewer into direct contact with the soul of the artist. If you go back to Rembrandt’s self portrait at London’s Kenwood House, “Self-Portrait With Two Circles,” it is hard not to think that it is a weight to grow old, that it happened to the bewilderment of the great Rembrandt, and it happens to you and me, too.
Why is it that critics, everyday, shall we say, vernacular critics, tend to a knee jerk pathologizing of the current selfie movement? One apologetic blogger even greets readers with, “Hi! I’m Diane Greco, and you are looking at my online exercise in narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, and, of course, vanity.” Greco’s Biblical language (“Vanity, vanity,” quoth the prophet, “all is vanity.” Eccles. 12:8) points an arrow straight back down the Puritan tradition that exhorts people to use photographs of themselves only to examine their own flaws and failures as a source for self-improvement and for attaining grace. Jessica Moore, photography collection curator at the Western Plains Cultural Centre, doesn’t mince words in her critical stance, “For me, The Selfie has been defeated by its ubiquity; their multitude and banal similarity has robbed them of any impact.” Moore, too, is in the grip of that Puritanism, that powerful force from the deep past that, in addition to critics crying narcissism, has spawned the Quantified Self Movement and the proliferation of productivity apps.
It is all too human to want to police the boundaries between (other people’s) public and private lives. Open the topic around any given water cooler, and those critical voice echos of Jessica Moore, perhaps your own, come down hard on selfies everywhere. Selfie researcher Jill Walker Rettberg makes the same observation, “Society disciplines digital self-representations such as selfies through ridicule and pathologizing.” I am not beyond interrogating these voices, and the primary argument that comes most quickly to mind for most of my conversationalists is an objection at the sheer numbers of selfies, as if quantity implied lack of value, cheapness, and, yes, narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, and, of course, vanity. Apparently the question really must be asked:
“Does the quantity of selfies make any kind of meaningful difference to anything?”
To answer, I turn to the Selfiecity.net project which quantitatively examined the differences in selfies from five different, international cities: Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paolo. This project is the brainchild of Dr. Lev Manovich, an expert on digital art and culture. Manovich is a Professor of Computer Science at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the Director of the Software Studies Initiative. He and his cohorts investigate selfies using a variety of methods–artistic, quantitative, and theoretical. They have set for themselves some fascinating questions, such as:
“How can the history of photography help to better understand selfies phenomena? How can we theoretically approach social media images in general?”
The current data set includes 3200 selfies. The web site includes data visualizations of, for example, the ratio of men to women in each city who post selfies on social media. It turns out that many more women post selfies than men. In Bangkok, 1.3% more women post than men; in Moscow, 4.6% more women post than men, a fascinating gender contrast. For another example, the data show people take fewer selfies than are being complained about around the water cooler: depending on the city, only 3-5% of images were actually selfies.
The data set can be analyzed by any visitor to the web site using a variety of filters. Different trends flow through the selfie culture of any given city–head tilts, smiles, poses, expressions–and those can be isolated for research, for deep thinking, for art history, or for investigation into the desire for self-representation.
In my view, selfies are very much both for communicating and for reflecting upon ourselves. Creating and sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is either consciously or unconsciously a form of self-reflection and self-creation. The ancient artists of Southern France had the cave walls of Lascaux to leave red handprints as their eternal marks; we have the selfie to contribute to the great stream of human history.
Greco, Diane. Web log post. [Narcissism, Vanity, Exhibitionism, Ambition, Vanity, Vanity, Vanity]. 27 May 2013. Web. <http://dianegreco.blogspot.com/>.
Manovich, Lev, Moritz Stefaner, Mehrdad Yazdani, Dominikus Baur, Daniel Goddemeyer, Alise Tifentale, Nadav Hochman, and Jay Chow. “Selfiecity.” Selfiecity. Digital Thought Facility, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://selfiecity.net/>.
Moore, Jessica, and Kent Buchanan. “Selfies: The Pros and Cons of a Global Obsession.” Dubbo Photonews Weekender. 17 May 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.dubbophotonews.com.au/index.php/dpn/categories/local-news/item/3037-selfies-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-global-obsession>.
Walker Rettberg, Jill. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs, and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Norway: U of Bergen, 2014. Print.
Additional Sources Consulted
Cumming, Laura. A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits. Hammersmith, London: HarperPress, 2009. Print.
Losh, Elizabeth. “Beyond Biometrics: Feminist Media Theory Looks at Selfiecity.” Selfiecity.net. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://selfiecity.net/#theory>.
McKenzie, Jamie. “The Selfie Goes to School.” From Now On. 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://www.fno.org/mar2014/selfie.html>.
Rutledge, Pamela. “Making Sense of Selfies.” Psychology Today (2013). 2 July 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
“Enchantment: Remembering Back into Maxfield Parrish”
On a rainy January afternoon, I had nothing but a mind-numbing vista of meetings spread out over my afternoon. The day was gray; I was blue. I decided that in the hour I had available that I would drive up to Skinner’s Butte, one of Eugene, Oregon’s few local high-ish places. The view from there is down Willamette Street through Eugene, across the valley floor to Spencer’s Butte.
I took a variety of photographs using my Panasonic Lumix 5 because the act of looking through the lens gathers my scattered thoughts, brings me back to center, anchors me in the present moment where I belong.
The little park on top of the Butte was built in 1914. I don’t know when the cement viewing platform was built, but it features two large, elegant, ball – topped cement pillars about four feet tall. I placed one on the left side of the camera frame with Spencer’s Butte in the background.
That evening, as a reward for having survived the meetings, I played with the few images I had taken, moving them in and out of photo apps on my iPad. As I played with the pillar and mountain image in an app called Distressed FX, I found a combination of golden glow and deep blue that I found suddenly very compelling.
I paused and ask myself why, and I realized I was forcibly reminded of the Maxfield Parrish paintings in my childhood edition of Arabian Nights. That memory took me to such a deep, beginning place as a child. I used pour over each richly colored plates, wondering especially about what I would now call architectural details – giant urns that a child could – and did in one of Scheherazade’s stories – hide in; open-air colonnades with huge pillars framing a wilderness scene of craggy mountains and free tumbling waterfalls.
I loved this painting as a child; so much so that five decades later somehow I remembered the ball-topped pillar in the upper right on the staircase. When I photographed a similar pillar in indigo and gold (photograph, below), my soul flowered with pleasure.
This is what I call Source Imagery, a personal lexicon of signs, symbols, memories, dreams, reflections that bubble like spring water underground only to emerge in surprising and soul-nurturing ways.
As a child of the Pacific Northwest, I understood the wilderness scenes, but I went back again and again to wonder about how broad stairs, shrines, gazebos, fountains and urns got out there in the mountains. The figures, which I now see as romanticized, were just other children to me, children from the Arabian Nights stories that informed the images.
Maxfield Parrish is famous for his rich blues – a certain shade was even named after him, “Parrish blue.” His contrasting color was gold, and in between he painted with a saturated palette of violets, deep indigo, and gold, gold, and more gold. I understood this palette, too, as not romantic, but as a reflection of the mountainous, sun-drenched world I knew.
My most passionate images spring from the source waters of my childhood. A spring moves underground among gravel bars and root complexes gathering minerals and scents so subtle and wild that the human nose can’t detect them.
At unexpected folds of the landscape, the springs emerge such as those at Indigo Springs that form the headwaters of my home river, the Willamette.
Source imagery, that is, images that call to me, that evoke my passion or wonder, that transfix me with luminous unspoken power–like spring water have moved under my conscious mind tangling together the memories of what is called the family romance, the wild places, the secret places I knew so well, the story books I read – the stories I revisited again and again, the illustrations that pulled me into exotic landscapes.
I understand that I have a Romantic with a capital R imagination. I understand that in my visual art, I am always unconsciously striving to reveal the luminous traces of the Mystery behind all things.
The further I move away from childhood, the more something in me longs to loop back and reinhabit part of who I was then; a longing to complete the circle of time that is unique to me.
“If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. … This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.”
– Terry Tempest Williams
Everything about visiting Denali National Park and Preserve astonished me and made me think. The National Park Service had some flyers on a desk that said, “NPS 2014 Challenge: ‘What does wilderness mean to you?'” Park visitors were invited to submit photos or stories or multi-media projects through any of the customary social media outlets using #MyWilderness.
I submitted some photos via Instagram (see the right-hand sidebar of this page for my Instagram stream), but I really thought the question and the experience of Denali deserved deeper work. “Snow Globe” was the result:
I’m proud to say that it was chosen by the National Park Service to be featured on their website during 2014.
My novelist friend Beth Camp, who keeps an excellent and active blog at http://bethandwriting.blogspot.com/has looped me in to an internet phenomenon called “The Blog Hop.” There is no centralized beginning point, just each blogger answering four questions and then inviting two other bloggers to do the same on their blogs.
The four questions are:
What are you currently working on?
How does your writing process work?
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
“Tell a story about a time when you were given permission to express yourself through your creativity. Bring us to the moment of awareness that you felt supported to fully explore your creative voice.”
I don’t actually ever remember not feeling I had permission to be creative because everyone in my family pretty much has kept the faucet on since the moment of birth, from what I can tell.
However, I suddenly remembered when I learned how to think about and how to navigate the creative cycles of life. In this digital story, I’ve distilled what was actually many different training sessions over many months and years into the first moment of understanding. I was miraculously blessed with very practical spiritual training at the time in my life I most needed it. Everything since then has been a matter of paying it forward.
In this short digital story, I ask, “What is source imagery?” I give some examples and try to fumble my way toward a definition or at least a series of thoughts about this key question that should haunt and preoccupy the tillers in ANY artistic field.