How to make a selfie masterpiece
Andy Warhol started taking such photos in 1963, now they cost millions
14 July, 2017
One day in 1963, Andy Warhol walked into a New York photobooth and took what have become the world’s most famous selfies. One of these trailblazing self-portraits has recently been sold at a Sotheby’s auction for just over £6m.
These selfies, enlarged and printed by the artist, perfectly suited Warhol’s vision of the pop art era of the late 1950s and 1960s - they are quintessentially all-American, democratic and mechanical. Though photobooth pictures could not go viral like social media pictures now, the use of a photobooth to make art was, in 1963, fiercely innovative and added to the aura of technical invention that surrounded Warhol, just like it surrounds selfies and social media presently.
Selfies are the holy grail of social media: self-portraying photographs that are posted on a social networking site and tell stories that aim to engage large numbers of people. One recent research study has revealed three things that can help you to take pictures that are worth - if not millions of pounds - at least a thousand words, and without you having to risk your life for them. The participants in the study were asked to rate pictures on a number of photographic elements: point of view, content, “artsiness” and the like and indicate how likely they were to comment on the pictures if they saw them on social media. Here are the main points:
People prefer you in front of the camera. Point of view (POV) in photography is a question of who it is people “see” taking the picture. The simple distinction is that of “person” - of which there are two principle kinds: third person (Warhol taking a picture of Marilyn Monroe, for example) and first person (Warhol’s selfie). In Warhol’s time, most photographs were taken from a third POV. Point of view contributes richly to how people feel and think as they look at a picture. Naturally, Warhol plays a greater part in the pictured story of his selfie than in his famous picture of Marilyn Monroe. Just as Warhol is more involved in the story he is telling with his selfie, so are other people statistically more likely to engage with the content of selfies.
People get bored of just you. Ever since the portrait was first invented, painters and photographers have tended to give priority of importance to person or action. Most people’s selfies are all about themselves - but research suggests this is a poor strategy for attracting attention, as people are more likely to comment on selfies of people doing something meaningful than on “just” selfies.
Selfie-takers have agency beyond just being the subject of their own pictures. Warhol does something else, too - he appears to adjust his tie. Conversely, as Warhol does that, he necessarily reveals who he is: an icon of the golden era of pop art and the ultimate arbiter of celebrity glamour. By his action, other people come to know him better. They can like or dislike, react or respond to his picture. But he has captured their attention.
Realistic pictures put people off. Warhol’s selfie was designed not to portray or expose truth, but instead to acknowledge the artifice and deception inherent to any form of representation. If the creative leeway between reality and picture was wide in Warhol’s photograph, it is enormous since photography entered social media. Photographers who complain that selfies are poor representations of reality, miss the fact that taking selfies is not representation in anything but the loosest sense. Contemporary photographers should deploy the full power of techniques, such as emojis, filters, lenses - and tools such as “selfie sticks” to turn the original into something artful.