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.


James Butler said...

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.

I tend to assume that they're looking at the preview pane of the webcam software - "This Is Me, Looking At Me" in other words.

James Butler said... least that's what I'm doing in mine.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That may be literally true in some instances when the photo is taken, but if I'm talking to you and I look at it it's not what I see.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(Although what you are describing is also how the screen can in fact become a mirror.)

Christopher Butler said...


Another lovely piece. As I'm sure I've said before, I look forward to Mondays, in part because I know something new of yours will be there to read.

I also wanted to point you to this -- not sure if you've seen it: "Unintended Consequences". The gist: Pictures taken by Apple store customers using floor models have been curated for a gallery show... well as this: "People Staring at Computers".

Hope you're well,


Unknown said...

I worry now that comments may be equally unreal.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you and thank you, Chris. Another correspondent pointed me to the Wired piece overnight, it's remarkable. I hadn't found much in a fairly cursory research for the post.

Lyndon said...

Speaking of mirrors, I recall Apple devices automatically reflect the frontcam image horizontally, persumably in honour of the mirror analogy, though in a lot of way I'm thinking it would emphasise the way the perspective was still different.

I'd hope there's some kind of permission-granting before software to use the camera.

Andrew said...

I saw an exhibition at the wonderful FOAM gallery in Amsterdam last year which looked at the use of webcams in a public space.

The exhibition was called Showroom Girls, and while it was more about narcissim/exhibitionism, also raised questions about the ethics of what the artist then did when he found the webcam images saved on a computer in a shop: he tracked down the subjects via publicly available information and then had print outs of their tweets as part of the exhibition. See the video on this page.

The gallery has some scans [pdf] of press coverage [pdf] of the exhibition, which provide a few more examples of the kinds of images.

Some more food for thought about shared creation/curation etc.

Megan Clayton said...

Facetime (The Screen).

This is me,
looking at your
looking at the baby.

The baby
is a series of fontanelles
that cohere around a nipple.

The nipple is obscure(d)
by the baby.
The little camera

shows the toddler's gaze
zooming, looming in.
This is you,

looking at my
looking at the toddler.
The toddler

is a system of questions
and switches off,

the software.
This is the toddler
looking at the screen.

She reaches out to
in miniature;

she reaches out
to me.
This is the baby,

looking at my
looking at the screen.
This is the screen.

St George's Hospital &
Greenhurst Street,
1 June 2012

Unknown said...

Lovin' them tercets.

Megan Clayton said...

High praise ;)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, what Megan said. In fact, what you both said.

Megan Clayton said...

Also: the 17 at the very end is not canon; it snuck in from the previous failed attempt to prove I'm not a robot.