Helped by things like the new iPhone, photographing oneself easily and well is now a given for young people.
Published July 11, 2010|Updated July 13, 2010


New York Times


At least, that was the conclusion of a recent study by, the popular dating site for 20-somethings. To determine which factors made a photo more attractive, the staff tabulated the number of interested responses to thousands of pictures, then broke down their characteristics. The findings were intriguing, to say the least. Women responded more often to pictures in which the man is looking off-camera, not into it. Men were more likely to respond to pictures in which the woman is at home (and looking a little come-hither), rather than out with friends or on a trip. But for both sexes, pictures in which the subjects are smiling uniformly trounced the stone-faced ones.

"For pictures of men, especially," said Sam Yagan, a founder of the site, "the smile is critical." Good to know.

But what was most striking to Yagan about the OkCupid pictures was how much thought and effort went into even the most casual snapshots. "People are really putting their best foot forward, for complete strangers," he said. "It's pretty remarkable."

Remarkable indeed. Human vanity has been jolted by any number of power surges over the years: the late Neolithic era development of the mirror, the late 19th century popularization of makeup, the late reign of Tom Ford at Gucci. With the debut of Apple's newest iPhone, the latest show of vanity has kicked into high gear. With a second camera lens that faces the viewer (instead of the view), the iPhone has simplified something people have been struggling with - some covertly, some flagrantly - ever since they signed up for AOL more than a decade ago: taking a good picture of themselves. Finally, the iGeneration has a good head shot.

The fine art of self-presentation used to be something mastered only by models and movie stars. Mere mortals did their best for special occasions, like family outings, with what was, one hoped, a single, pleasant expression. Then having a camera phone aimed your way became as much a part of life's pleasure and pain as ordering a coffee at Starbucks.

"People are so much more attuned to adjusting how they look in front of a camera," said Keith Gould, the creator of Daily Mugshot, a free website that allows users to automatically upload a picture of themselves every day. (The results can be embedded, like any picture, on your own Web page, and they can be played in rapid sequence, like an animation.) "Now they make precise decisions about every part of their face and angle of their head."

As a result, the self-snap is fast becoming as vital a facet of how we present ourselves as our clothes, figures or voices. Photographing oneself easily and well is a talent that, like being able to download music via mind control or reduce whole paragraphs to acronyms at warp speed, is now a given for young people. And it is a skill that, if you are single or younger than 50, you cannot afford to neglect - especially if you are both.

The practice is so common that it is changing photography itself. "This really represents the shift of the photograph serving as a memorial function to a communication device," said Geoffrey Batchen, formerly of the City University of New York and now a professor of art history at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, who has written extensively on historical and contemporary photography. "The camera was used to record something that happened so it could be remembered. Now it's used immediately. It's uploaded to Facebook to say, 'Here I am in Istanbul' or whatever, so it also goes back and forth between personal and promotional use. It really represents the refashioning of the self for a semipublic view."

And it starts early. This came as quite a surprise to Amber Ward, a largely technophobic mother of two who lives in Manhattan. Two weeks ago, she found her 3-year-old son, Beckett, playing with her iPhone, as usual.

"He was holding it up like he was taking a picture, but he was holding it in the wrong direction," she said. "So I went over to take it and show him, but he clutched at it and said, 'No, Mama - me!' And he held it up to show me: He was taking a picture of himself."

Apple had already had huge success with its Photo Booth software, which allows you to use a MacBook's built-in webcam to take a self-portrait. And recently, Canon and Samsung introduced cameras that facilitate the process. The Canon PowerShot G11, which came out last summer, has a hinged LCD screen that pivots to the side so you can see it when the lens is pointed at you. Samsung's DualView cameras, which were introduced in 2009, were such an immediate hit that the company brought out more models, promoted in an ad campaign with the eerily appropriate Alicia Keys song Wait Til You See My Smile. And innovative photo accessories, notably the Gumby-legged Gorillapod tripods that can mold to any terrain or even wrap around a pipe or tree limb, are a boon to the self-shooter.

That's not all. Even as aesthetic watchdogs wage campaigns to persuade glossy magazines to stop the digital retouching of models and actors, the word over at Adobe, whose Photoshop is by far the most widely used photo-retouching software on the market, is that more consumers are joining (not beating) 'em. Adobe has for several years made a cheaper, simplified version of Photoshop for nonprofessionals, but the new, easier-to-navigate version of Photoshop's premier program, CS5, reflects the fact that a growing number of consumers can handle (and will pay for) the full suite of tools, including two, named Pucker and Bulge, that are perfect for a little body-sculpting. You can bet people aren't shelling out to make photos of someone else look better.

"We understood we needed to make it easier to use, in terms of image retouching and manipulation," Bryan O'Neil Hughes, the product manager for Photoshop, said. "Everybody is suddenly representing themselves to the world this way, and you see people doing different things, just to make themselves look better or stand out - anything from mild retouching to putting themselves in pictures and making themselves look like paintings, and all that Avatar-y sort of stuff."

Artist Cindy Sherman, who uses herself as a model for her intense tableaus, has recently become proficient at Photoshop. "I actually love it," she said. "Instead of doing real makeup for the shoot, I'm adding it digitally. Of course, I'm adding wrinkles while most people are taking them away."

Sherman does share one characteristic with the self-shooting masses: She feels far less comfortable as a subject when she is not the photographer. "I'm still very self-conscious when someone takes my portrait," she said. "A lot of pictures, I just cringe when I see them."

With yourself as photographer, self-consciousness fades fast, as Gould of Daily Mugshot noticed when he began capturing himself daily for his own program. "When I started doing it, I was pretty self-conscious," he said. "You want to make sure you look good and the lighting's good. But as it becomes part of your life, you just embrace your crazy hair. Or you notice that you're still wearing the same shirt from yesterday and you don't care."

Basically, he said, what starts off as an exercise in narcissism and image control eventually devolves into something more routine and candid, a chronicle of the same face we present to the world, despite our best efforts at airbrushing our flaws.

As mundane as that sounds, one of the findings of the OkCupid research was that people respond more favorably to straightforward photos that clearly are taken by the subjects themselves - with, say, the telltale curve of the arm snaking up the side of the picture - than to pictures that are better composed and show them in a more flattering light.

Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, has done studies on the assumptions we make about strangers in photographs. He reasons that people are drawn to candid snapshots because they seem more trustworthy than a lovely picture that may not be a faithful rendition.

"What we've found is that this stuff is harder to manipulate than you think," he said. "We've done studies with Facebook where we take down people's impressions of someone's Facebook photos, then compared those impressions to how that person wants to be seen, and how they actually see themselves." The result: They see you like you see you, not as you want to be seen.

The camera doesn't lie after all - not when it really gets to know you.