In September 2015, Dolce and Gabbana became the first major fashion house to incorporate the selfie into the runway. Their Italian village-inspired collection at Milan’s Fashion week was filled with floral prints, harvest-themed colours, ceramic patterns, and postcard imagery of landmarks and landscapes, featuring the mobile phone. Several, in fact. As each model strutted down the runway, they would take a selfie. Their photographs were then instantaneously projected onto large screens around the venue and uploaded to the brand’s social media channels. The result was an unprecedented amount of audience participation and interaction through likes, comments and shares, attracting huge press coverage and sales.
A year prior, a lesser-known Kenneth Cole had used Instagram and Vine for his spring collection, ‘Content creators’. A playful then 21-year old, Cara Delevingne, had also live-streamed herself as she pouted and pulled funny faces marching down the catwalk at the Giles Deacon show.
Once shy of engaging the market through digital means, luxury fashion was starting to understand and embrace the penchant of the new era to capture and share their life’s greatest moments. Soon the word ‘selfie’ was officially accepted into the English lexicon. It gained entry into the Oxford Dictionary. But Nigel Hurst, CEO of London’s Saatchi Gallery argues that the ‘selfie’ is not new as a concept or artistic genre. It has existed and evolved for over 500 years. From selfie to self-expression is an exhibition currently running at the Saatchi Gallery that explores its history. The sequence begins in the 17th century with self-portraiture by Rembrandt uploaded to a digital display. It then travels through the ages and shows us the faces of artists, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol, celebrities like Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie and ends with the ordinary person doing extraordinary things. People like you and me, taking selfies while swimming with sharks and posing on the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers.
The chronology also highlights a change in artistic tools and the level and type of skill and mastery required by the creator. Once, to achieve self-expression relied on more traditional means, oil, paint, charcoal etc. and years of practice after being technically trained. Today, equipped with our smartphones, we all have access to a camera ready to click and the ability to alter images, filter, crop, change the brightness and fiddle with the contrast and exposure. Anyone can do it. And that reality makes the selfie easy to frown upon and dismiss as not being ‘real’ art. In fact, the connotations of those that frequently indulge in such activity are negative – shallow, narcissistic and obsessed with self.
According to adweek.com, 93 million selfies are taken each day. Given the trajectory of Instagram, Snapchat, and our desire to feel experiences rather than acquire things, Hurst acknowledges that this number is set to grow. Hurst is neutral in his stance. We don’t know if he enjoys the selfie or finds it displeasing. He makes no specific comment on the aesthetic, but does remark that “The selfie is by far the most expansionist form of visual self-expression, whether you like it or not…The art world cannot really afford to ignore it”.
From Selfie to Self-Expression is open at the Saatchi Gallery from 30th March to 31st May 2017