A review of the “Me and My Selfie” show at Photo Center Northwest. It’s up through Oct. 31.
I brought my teenage daughter to the “Me and My Selfie” show at Photo Center Northwest (PCNW). Seemed appropriate — smart, even — because she could be my guide. She is, after all, growing up in a world of selfies.
(For the handful of you who don’t know, a selfie is a photographic self-portrait often taken with a cellphone.)
We sauntered into the exhibition expecting enlarged self-portraits with individual artistry singled out and celebrated on the pristine walls of the gallery. That’s not what we got.
‘Me and My Selfie’
Noon-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through Oct. 31, Photo Center NW, 900 12th Ave., Seattle; (206-720-7222 or pcnw.org).
There are phones and tablets and wires galore. There are multiple images on each screen. We needed to tap and swipe and huddle together to see the same image at the same time. The act of viewing the exhibition mirrors the process of selfie-taking and sharing.
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Most of the images in this show are not by professional photographers. They were submitted to PCNW and its affiliate organizations in an open call. There are some stunning, unique approaches to this pervasive form. But the overall result is a thought-provoking barrage of the familiar.
My daughter helped me identify some conventions: bathroom selfie; shot pointed down at shoes; shadow only; distorted reflective surfaces, etc. And, yes, there are some look-at-my-sexy-body pics and omg-I’m-in-bed-with-____ shots. These screens are clearly identified as having explicit content.
There’s the occasional celebrity. A young woman’s fan photo with Spike Lee. The artist Chuck Close submitted a few snapshots. And they’re simply mixed in with the hundreds of other images.
I’m glad there’s an emphasis on what’s out there. This show does not upend conventions. It mirrors them back to us. As PCNW Director Michelle Dunn Marsh states, “Selfies are the dominant form of vernacular photography of our time.”
The topic and screen-centered approach for the show emerged out of her conversations with then-gallery director Ann Palleson (now partnerships manager). For Dunn Marsh, the engaging, interactive exhibition serves the center’s goals to “stay relevant and increasingly accessible” to the community.
Chieko Phillips, the PCNW public-programs curator, marveled at the process of receiving over 250 submissions, then sorting them. She says she kept asking, “What are we seeing? What do these say about our current moment?”
Two major themes were identified: self-representation and documentation, with a third area for series from artists who consciously address the selfie. Amy Bassin, for example, submitted several #Selfie Fictions, in which she responds “to the nascent narcissism of selfie culture.”
My favorite image in this artist-series section is by Jonathan David Smyth, who snapped himself in a cab, his face reflected in the cabbie’s headrest, surrounded by the identifying information — the cab’s number, the driver’s ID badge. It’s an intimate, conflated self-portrait/portrait, a sublimely ordinary encounter between two strangers.
The relationship between self and others is a hot topic for social-media scholars who examine the effects of constant self-representation. Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, has written that the “Selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”
On the one hand, the exhibition at PCNW re-creates this effect. My daughter and I had a great time swiping through selfies and snapping our own. The performative, interactive nature of the exhibition is overt. There’s a full-length mirror to pose in front of, a selfie-stick and cool Polaroid-type camera to borrow, and an invitation to post online with the hashtag #selfie_pcnw. I could feel the pace of social media — tap, scan, snap, move on.
On the other hand, by highlighting these actions, the show asks us to pause and reflect. We can slow down, really look at the selves on display and ponder ourselves in the swirl of images.