February 6, American Selfie exhibit opens

February 7, Deborah Willis, “Locating the Self-Portrait in Postcard and Photobooth Imagery,” Mason Hall Auditorium, 5:30 pm

Most of us take selfies for a variety of reasons: to commemorate an event, to share our everyday activities with friends, to record our presence in special places. Yes, selfies are also connected to some big problems, like social media addiction, mental health risks, and privacy violations. But what we love about selfies, despite these concerns, is the image control they promise—the power to appear as we want to appear, and the power to share that self-representation. Selfies help us make ourselves recognizable to ourselves and others.

It turns out this impulse is very old and very global. For sure, we can see it in painted self-portraits that date back to the Renaissance and, in other media, to the very beginnings of human creativity—and across the world from Africa to Asia. Photography has become one of self-portraiture’s most powerful tools, liberating it from the domain of the trained artist.

The power to shape your own image and share it, especially through a democratic medium like photography, is especially important if you are on the front lines of an image battle—if your race, gender, or sexuality, for example, is frequently depicted by others in restrictive, stereotypical, or harmful ways.

All of these motivations are apparent in the Sheridan Libraries’ African American Real Photo Postcard Collection, which contains over 1,000 “real photo postcards” of African American people from the very early 1900s to the mid twentieth century. A “real photo postcard” was a postcard with a homegrown image—instead of a photo supplied by the postcard publisher, it featured an amateur snapshot or the kind of studio portrait you might arrange for a graduation or wedding. In other words, whether the subjects of the photographs were the actual photographers or not, the subjects were at the very least organizing their own images and choosing what to share, by sending their postcards through the mail. This was about as close as you could get to the modern selfie before the smartphone era.

You can learn more about real photo postcards and African American self-portraiture traditions through the two events mentioned above—both coming up next week. On February 6, a new exhibition called American Selfie, curated by students Monika Borkovic and Lorna Henson, will be installed on B-level of the Brody Learning Commons. It will remain on display through Friday, April 6. And on February 7, Professor Deborah Willis, a noted photographer, curator, and historian of African American photography, will give a talk called “Locating the Self-Portrait in Postcard and Photobooth Imagery,” Mason Hall Auditorium, 5:30 pm. Please register for the talk here. You can also explore the postcard collection on your own through JScholarship.

And yes, we are celebrating Black History Month!