How SnapChat Made Ugly Selfies Mainstream


Ugly is the new beautiful.

All right, so that may be a bit of a stretch. But with the advent of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and social media services like Instagram and even SnapChat, everyone is a photographer. The tools to create photographic images have never been more accessible. 

That theme of accessibility is explored in About Face and Making Pictures of People. The former is a physical exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City while the latter is displayed online (though is viewable in the museum through touch screens).

Making Pictures of People, the far less traditional half of the exhibit, features the works of 27 photographers exploring themes such as the construction of identity based on race, gender & class and the relationship between individuality and cultural imperatives. At the core of these themes is "the artists' exchange with their subjects and the creative inspirations that drive them to make the images that push photographic portraiture forward."

Each photographer has a chance to explain their work, the inspiration and themes behind the photographs and their artistic process. It is an interesting experience, being able to "browse" through the exhibit from the comfort of your own home. But as An Xiao points out in her review of Making Pictures of People for Hyperallergic, the show itself may push the boundaries of portraiture, but the photographs and images do not. 

We see two strangers standing outside a theatre at night, or an elderly couple seated at home. While there is a story, a theme and artistry in every one of these photos, the very boundaries the exhibit is out to push are not challenged by the photographs but their method of display.

What challenges the standards of portraiture then? Look no further than the aforementioned apps and social media services that turn every iPhone owner into an aspiring Annie Leibovitz. For anyone who has ever attended a family reunion or a birthday party, you know of the standard "funny photo," taken after all the nice shots have been completed, to unleash the inner child in us. But now, ugly is the mainstream.

We see it in the silly selfies on Facebook or the cleverly-captioned SnapChats that "go away" after a few seconds of viewing (spoiler alert for the novice SnapChatters out there: they don't really go away). These aren't just throwaway shots but a new method of expression through a new medium. Rather than a carefully prepped series of shots — the best clothes ironed and worn, hair and makeup done perfectly, figures arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner — the new method of portraiture is about immediacy and accessibility.

Find yourself in a funny situation on the street? Selfie! Bump into an old friend at the bar? Snapchat it and send it out for the world to see! Our age of tweets and status updates requires a visual index as well, and we're all armed with some sort of camera in hand to capture these moments. Immediacy is favored over quality, and thus ugly trumps pretty. Speed is the mainstream.

The expansion of photographic tools means that an exhibition highlighting the progress of portraiture can't just acknowledge the new methods of display. The subject of our photographic gaze has changed as well. Gr