Everybody was here: A portrait of the artist(‘s self portraits)

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

Why selfies?

I mean, I already know what I look like. That’s what mirrors, hairstylists, bad home videos, and good grandparents are for. Why go to the trouble of taking a picture of myself in front of Big Ben, or a rainforest river, or six drunken fake Spidermen in Times Square? Why not just take pictures of each place? Doesn’t inserting oneself in front of the presumably interesting locale spoil the picture?

I reckon it’s because humans have always had this incorrigible desire to validate their existence; first through art, then graffiti, and today via the ubiquitous selfie. Regardless of the form it takes, the selfie declares, “I was here! I existed. I meant something — even if only for the brief time it required to paint this image, etch these words, or take this snapshot.” Selfies are an expression of the id and a desire to find permanence in an impermanent universe.

Much to humanity’s surprise, like so many things over time these intensely personal expressions quite inadvertently become history and art.

That’s not to say the shaky quickie pix of you and your date smooching on Whiskey Row at one on a Saturday morning will some day appear in a celebrated visual history of the 21st century — but it might. A lot depends on the lighting, what you’re wearing, your makeup, what’s visible in the background, and a lot more. What becomes art and history is determined not by us but by what future generations decide is important. We can never know when a selfie might prove invaluable to the future. That rum-soaked individual photobombing you might turn out to be an important scientist — or axe murderer, or politician. The building site that currently houses a bar or hotel might in the future become a center of great learning. One never knows.

Vincent van Gogh immortalizes himself in “Self-portrait as a Painter,” 1887-1888, and, apparently, through the power of public domain, wields an anachronism to capture the moment apud progressus.

I suspect that the Cro-Magnons who left us the great cave paintings at Lascaux, France, were not attempting to create the first great art. They were doing selfies. One can imagine them squatting by torchlight, painstakingly layering the visual magic on stone walls that our generation would come to view as an artistic miracle, all the while arguing over whose nose was too big. In a procession of hunters, did one disgruntled individual sneak back in at a later date to insert his own figure, his own selfie, in the front of the line? Did they delete their hand painted images as frequently as we do ours with our cell phones? For sure — selfies one and all.

On the island of Mainland (yes, that’s what it’s called) in the Orkney islands lies a Neolithic cairn, a tomb some 2,800 years old. In roughly 1,000 C.E., the Vikings broke in and stole pretty much everything (hey, you know … Vikings). But they left behind selfies, in the form of graffiti. The best preserved runic writing in Europe. What do these hand-carved selfies tell us about these bold seafaring warriors? Pretty much the same things selfies tell us about ourselves today.

“Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women,” reads one. Another tersely describes sex in terms familiar to anyone today. But most, like “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes,” is straightforwardly the Viking version of a selfie. Nothing changes. People don’t take selfies to remember themselves: they take them so other people will remember them, and what they’ve done.

I recall the first time I saw a bus disgorge a load of Japanese tourists at the Grand Canyon. They spent a few minutes (maybe seconds) eying the canyon before turning their cameras on themselves. I learned that seeing the Canyon wasn’t nearly as important as being able to prove to the folks back home that the travelers had been to the Canyon. The selfie as proof of social status.

I imagine the motivation was the same with those unknown artists who painted themselves onto the walls of the caves of Lascaux, the same with good ol’ Haermund Hardaxe, and the same with those young folks out late on a Friday night on Whiskey Row. That’s just humankind for you. We’re all one big selfie.

And if we’re fortunate, in the end some of us end up as art.


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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