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The beginning of the twentieth century saw new forms of mechanical reproduction making its way into the cultural domains of society. While photography is now a recognized art form, associated with popular culture, this was not the case in the ninetieth century. Photography has long stopped being reserved for the elite. Photography, now an amateur practice too, is no longer for special occasions. Popular photography, characterized by the selfie, has fast become a cultural habit of the everyday.
Selfies are omnipresent and amply found on social media platforms. However, the format of photographic self-portraits is not a new idea. This format was actively shared and exchanged in the nineteenth century, noting the beginning of a new photographic era that was characterized by mass reproduction. In the early days of photography, (self-)portraits were the most popular genre. Photographers mimicked the style from painted portraiture, aligning themselves with artists and the serious demeanor of painted portraits. This was done as photography’s claims to artistry were often disregarded. As said, the photography skill was not seen as an artistic talent, as their technique was considered a mechanical reproduction of reality. Although the selfie is thus linked to traditional photographic self-portraiture, it’s contemporary attributes include metadata, and the user’s ability to alter the selfie with filters, tuning tools, and other means. Furthermore, the instantaneous circulation of an image via Instagram makes the selfie significantly different from its earlier photographic forerunners, since, in Benjamin’s time, the only way to see an image was in its printed form.
With the ability to post your selfies online for the entire world to see, you no longer have to wait for satisfaction. As mentioned by Benjamin (2005), “one of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later”. This is no longer the case, as likes and comments allow for an immediate reaction. Posting images on Instagram can be understood as a constant exchange of instantaneous interactions. Users can share their selfies and their followers can instantly respond through likes and comments. In June of 2016, Instagram had over 500 million active users, which is more than the population of Europe at the time of Benjamin’s writing. Instagram, one of the youngest, visually oriented social networks, mainly focuses on interaction with users, and most prominently the sharing of pictures and short videos on which different filters can be applied. Instagram was introduced in October 2010 and was bought by Facebook in April 2012. Similar to the impact photography had on society in the eighteenth century, in this age, authenticity and authorship are called into question by for example ways of digital manipulation. For Benjamin, mechanically reproducing an image destroys its link to time and space. Scholars like W.J.T Mitchell have also asserted that in the contemporary, digital age, editing software also brakes the link to its original referent. Cropping, filtering, captioning, and uploading Instagram photos have little to do with real life, time, and place. The Instagram photo is a practice that is less about the truthful real-life portrayal and more about enacting social rituals and conform to audience expectations. These photos are taken with the idea that they will be altered, submitted and then decontextualized by the audience. However, taking pictures in this fashion is Instagram’s fundamental operative. With the age of digital reproduction, the aura takes on a whole new meaning.
Traditions of photography and cultural heritage are disregarded, as one can access images from around the world within seconds. However, a form of digital photography often seen as authentic is the selfie. This is often regarded as a seemingly genuine representation of a person. However, one could argue that selfies are not the perfect reflections of reality. In the search for right angle and lighting, the selfie-taker constructs their idealistic version of themselves. Whereas the limitations of seeing reproductions in the ‘30s were limited to galleries, posters, exhibitions spaces, etc., today, we have digital versions of this on Facebook, blogs, Instagram, and other social media platforms. The notion of ‘exhibition’ goes beyond the physical gallery, where the Internet is now the exhibition space with an audience with over 500 million people. Photography is no longer exclusive. Art has been given a new, different ritual value. One where accessibility and massification come into play. Important to note, however, is that there is a distinction between amateur and artistic photography. While in Benjamin’s time, photography was fully disregarded as art, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, photography has not only been recognized as art, the masses are able to take part in the practice without the burden of artistic values and talent. Selfies, then, are not necessarily taken to constitute art, but instead, are taken with a self-expression motive.
Selfies can be understood as an instance of relatively similar, and unoriginal images, but the practice can also be seen as an expression of the creativity of people. Or possibly as just a by-product of the accessibility of digital image making and sharing.
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