Monday, August 6, 2012

This Is Me, Looking at You

What the portraits have in common is the poor lighting, an unflattering, dull electric glow that falls flatly on the face. Sometimes the background is brighter than the foreground, and you can barely make out the person. Yet taken together these flaws become the coherent, familiar and instantly recognisable set of stylistic features of the quickest, most effective way of telling people: ‘This is me. This is what I look like.’

The webcam portrait isn’t a self-portrait: it’s getting your computer to take your picture. It’s getting a tool used for communication to show people what you look like when you’re sitting in front of your screen.

There are two kinds of webcam portraits: the ones in which the subject is looking into the camera and the ones in which they aren’t.

The webcam portraits in which the subject is looking into the camera appear to be saying: ‘This is me, looking at you’. But in fact this is me, looking at the webcam. You aren’t there. You are on the screen, and the screen itself couldn’t take my picture: it is a one-way surface that might in some cases respond to my touch but is not yet a camera, not yet a mirror.

The other kind of portrait, the one in which the subject isn’t looking into the camera, prompts a slightly different reading. When the subject isn’t looking directly at the painter or the photographer in traditional portraiture, it’s hard to know what they are looking at, absent contextual clues or artful reflections. But if the subject appears to be looking just below the camera in a webcam portrait, it means that they are looking at the computer screen. And if they are looking at the computer screen then they could be looking at practically anything, albeit a particular kind of anything.

Odds are it is the internet, which is not just any text or any medium but a special kind of both. Being on the internet, far more so than watching television or reading a book, means being everywhere at once, and being able to switch from thing to thing, from place to place more or less instantaneously. Yet I would argue that we still commonly understand ‘being on the internet’ as something less than that, and entailing a fairly narrow set of activities and relations. These revolve around the most done things: being on social media, or reading an email; carrying out work-related tasks; reading a news article or item of interest. We have a face for all of these things, and it’s the same face: relaxed yet concentrated, confident, imperturbable; a face that is good for work or leisure.

I stole the portraits in this post from random places on the internet. None of the people in them are personally known to me and I hope they won’t mind. If any of them recognise themselves and tell me that they do, I’ll go and pick somebody else, for we are – all of us – replaceable, anonymous. Every webcam portrait is the image not of a person but of the human/machine interface. In this respect every webcam portrait is functionally identical to any other.

The electric glow on our faces is an index of the present cultural moment, and when all the light in the picture emanates from the screen, the point is made – all too literally – that the subject is being constructed in relation to their computer and illuminated solely by this relationship. Representationally, the person in the picture becomes a function of their machine and more broadly of the dominant technical, cultural and social configurations of our age. Thus the webcam portrait makes visible one of the principal functions of the internet, that of organising and controlling bodies in space.

All this, I feel, is true. And yet, as it is almost always the case when it comes to these matters, one could make the opposite argument, which would go something like this: that electric glimmer isn’t the computer, it’s other people, and the internet is the space in between, so the webcam portrait really is what it claims to be: a picture of me, looking at you. So long as we are both staring at a screen, it might as well be the same screen, a glowing window of see-through soft plastic – or is it a pane of slow glass? – situated anywhere in the virtual non-Euclidean dimension that separates us and at the same time brings us together. The medium has evaporated. There is no artifice.

I like webcam portraits. I like to peer at the backgrounds, catch glimpses of faded posters or cluttered bookshelves in ordinary rooms. I like them but I get a sense that they are less common these days, either because people are becoming more sophisticated about how they present themselves, or because it has become simpler to upload better pictures taken with ordinary digital cameras or smartphones, or a combination of the two. They will go down, perhaps, as one of the self-conscious / unselfconscious things we used to do in the early age of the internet as we laboured to get comfortable in this new skin.