Narcissus in the Age of the Snapshot

Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like more than a century and a half ago, during our grandparents’ grandparents’ time, when there were no cameras and probably very few mirrors. Now, we’re inundated with images of ourselves and our friends and families. Then, I would have been a rare sight to myself. A few years earlier when I would probably not have been in the middle class, since few of us were, and therefore without a mirror in my mud shack, would I have had any idea at all of what I looked like, except through the kindly (I hope!) words of others? Narcissus, it is said, fell in love with his own image, but how many of us would have had easy access to reflecting pools and shiny silver lakes? 

Narcissus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio or Caravaggio (1573–1610)


I can understand, however, why Narcissus was so taken with himself. How many people in the course of human history, lived from birth to death with only the vaguest idea of what they looked like? Finding your face somewhere, anywhere, must have run a close second to finding God. Those in the wealthier realms of every society had mirrors, reflecting pools and, of course, painters to provide portraits. 

A portrait would satisfy. Now, finally, you knew what other people saw when they looked at you. The painter who didn’t flatter his subject must have been a rare bird indeed: his work was central to his subject’s self-identity. If the result was ugly and belonged to a subject with royal prerogatives, the painter might be out on his ear or worse. Today, we just toss the “bad” photographs of ourselves. But then…? 

Have you ever read about the pioneer on the terrible trip West during the 1840s, who carried a daguerreotype of his beloved close to his heart? Daguerreotypes were one of a kind. They couldn’t be copied, but at least his beloved herself had been replicated. Once. 

It took only a few years for photographs to gain currency. Soon, the itinerant portraitist was out of work, replaced by the photographer. Not many years after the Brownie camera became popular and everyone went around “pointing and shooting” everyone else. 

A Kodak ad from the 1930s.


Nevertheless, even during my young adulthood, photographs were costly, and taking quality pictures required knowhow and expensive equipment. Until today, when every important event of a child’s life, and most of the ordinary ones, is captured on film. When people process their own photographs on computers and send them to everyone on Facebook. When most of us are duplicated hundreds of times a month, if not by friends and relatives, then by surveillance cameras. 

Now that we know what we look like to other people, we can do something about it. Make-up and shaving creams are big business. Fashion is something everyone must consult. Physical appearance has never been so important to so many people. Beauty is something we all aspire to. Outer, and it follows – inner. 

When I contemplate this history, I wonder how we are different from our unphotographed forebears. We must be far more self-conscious, since we are reminded of our appearance continually. I think of the cultures whose citizens balked when anthropologists tried to photograph them: would they lose their souls in the process? Probably not. But we are a whole lot more like Narcissus than our ancestors. 

We’re just beginning now, in this age of replication, to appreciate how subjective a photograph can be. Touch-ups and Photoshop tricks certainly, but also perspective and light. Reality is more complex than ever. Nothing is exactly as it seems. Our appearance in photographs is more approximate than we thought. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t really know what we look like to others, and we’ll have to wait for another more perfect technology. 

And, if that’s so, we may also not be so certain of who the person on the other end of the camera lens is. We’re not that far from where we started. 

I like to think that art may save us. Including the art of photography. Art may yet tell us who we are to ourselves, and to each other. 

Or maybe not. 

Note: In my previous post, I ascribed a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to W. H. Auden. And was corrected. Thank you!