Art of the masses: From Kodak Brownie to Instagram

New journal article just came out:

Alise Tifentale, "Art of the Masses: From Kodak Brownie to Instagram," Networking Knowledge (special edition "Be Your Selfie: Identity, Aesthetics and Power in Digital Self-Representation"), Vol 8, No 6 (2015): 1-16. ISSN: 1755-9944 The journal is open access, and the article is free to read and download.

This article concludes a series of related articles and book chapters that I have written in late 2014 and early 2015 about photography in social media and selfies in particular. All of these writings are based in the research project Selfiecity that I co-authored with Lev Manovich, Moritz Stefaner, Mehrdad Yazdani, Dominikus Baur, Daniel Goddemeyer, Nadav Hochman, and Jay Chow.

Every article or chapter in this series focuses on different aspects of the topic, but all have in common my interest in photography as a form of visual communication and part of visual culture. Read more about this series of articles.

Abstract of this article:

In history of photography, new technological developments often have provided a basis for new forms of imagery. These, in turn, are followed by new ways of theorizing the photographic image. For example, the cheapness and ease of use of the Kodak Brownie camera around 1900 gave rise to a massive popularity of amateur photography, introduced the snapshot, and established a tradition of family photograph albums.

Similarly, around 2010 we saw a rise in popularity of a new kind of image-making, image-sharing, and image-viewing device, which I propose to call the networked camera. This networked camera consists of a smartphone with a built-in camera, wireless internet connection, and online image-sharing apps and other social media. The availability of such devices have provided the technological basis for the formation of a new sub-genre of amateur (or vernacular) photography – the selfie. The selfie continues the tradition of photographic self-portraiture yet at the same time presents us with a radically new type of image that demands equally new ways of analyzing it.

Arguments put forward in this article are grounded in my contribution to the research project Selfiecity (2013-2014) led by Lev Manovich and his research lab Software Studies Initiative.  This project was based on a dataset of 3,200 selfies posted to Instagram during one week in 2013 from five global cities: New York, Moscow, Berlin, Sao Paulo, and Bangkok. Research methods included computational analysis (such as software-driven face recognition and use of custom-made data visualization tools) as well as formal and content analysis of each individual image.

This article touches upon some of the inherent complexities of understanding the selfie that the methods and findings of Selfiecity have helped to articulate. Seeking for valid methods of theorizing and contextualizing the selfie, this article attempts to combine insights from the perspectives of history of photography and art history, digital humanities, and software studies.

Screenshot of the custom-made web app Selfiexploratory, part of Selfiecity (2013-2014).

Screenshot of the custom-made web app Selfiexploratory, part of Selfiecity (2013-2014).