Automatic portraits and selfies

I got a pile of books about the history of self-portraits at the UIC library yesterday, and I’m particularly enjoying Raynal Pellicer’s Photo Booth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait (Abrams, New York, 2010; translated from French by Antony Shugaar). There are so many similarities between the ways people experimented and played with early photo booths and the way we play with digital selfies today. Photobooths really made self-portraits accessible to the general public.

Did you know the surrealists loved them, too? Automatic photos – it’s like automatic writing, perfect surrealism! Here’s Yves Tanguy in the 1920s.

Yves-Tanguy-surrealist-photo-booth-picsAnd here’s Marie-Berthe Aurenche:


Look at this wonderful definition of the photobooth by members of the surrealist movement in the December 15, 1928 issue of Variétés: Revue mensuelle illustrée de l’esprit contemporain (which I unfortunately can’t find online – it’s quoted on page 92 of Pellicer’s book:

The Photomaton is an automatic device that provides you, in exchange for a five-france token, with a strip of eight attitudes caught in photographs. Photomaton, I’ve been seen, you’ve seen me, I’ve often seen myself. There are fanatics who collect hundreds of their ‘expressions’. It is a system of psychoanalysis via image. The first strip surprises you as you struggle to find the individual you always believed yourself to be. After the second strip, and throughout all the many strips that follow, while you may do your best to play the superior individual, the original type, the dark fascinating one, or the monkey, none of the resulting visions will fully correspond to what you want to see in yourself.

Bridgette Reed’s Pinterest board of photo booth images has a lot more examples. You can also browse the PDFs of La Revolution Surrealiste beautifully digitized by La biblioteque française – in the last issue, in 1929, Magritte’s painting “je ne void pas la cachée dans la forêt” is framed by photo booth portraits of 16 male surrealists with their eyes closed, all presumably dreaming of the naked woman in Magritte’s painting.

The surrealists were of course fascinated by automatic art, and as Priscilla Frank writes in commentary on an exhibition of photo booth art in Switzerland a couple of years ago,

it makes sense that surrealists would be entranced by the photo booth, an automaton that operated independently of human consciousness or human hands. Even the subjects were barely in control of their position, those photo flashes come too fast. The resulting images are pure, independent imaging; the subject is caught in limbo between pose and natural stance. In the endless stream of images, strip after strip, the people themselves lose their humanity and begin to look like automatic images as well.

Of course, if we’re comparing photobooth portraits to today’s selfies, we should be looking not so much at artistic use as at ordinary peoples’ self-portraits. But somehow I was even more fascinated by the photos of celebrities I found on Pinterest boards like Lucia Pena Sota’s FotoMatones. Oh, some of them are polished and glamorous, but many have that searching look that I see in the mirror when I gaze at my own face, or in the selfies I delete shortly after taking them. Or maybe they’re just practicing. After all, they only get a few goes with a photo booth, it’s not like a digital camera where you can shoot a hundred selfies and delete ninety-nine of them.



Marguerite Duras.


Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote




30. January 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

Reading a Twitter stream as a text or as a social act of self-expression

Lisa Boncheck Adams (@AdamsLisa) is a mother of three who has tweets and blogs about her life with cancer. Adams is currently undergoing radiation treatment and has been writing about the pain of side effects, with fairly detailed descriptions of the mechanics of undergoing this kind of treatment:

Often her posts are humorous, as her December 16 tweet: “In the Cancer Olympics there would be a medal for contrast chugging #contender”, which is accompanied by a photo of a jug of red contrast liquid. And each morning she posts an inspirational call to focus on what is beatiful: “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”

In an opinion piece in The Guardian last week, Emma Keller wrote about Adams in a way that elicited a lot of criticism, leading to the piece being removed from The Guardian’s website, as Chris Elliott explained today. A few days after Emma Kelley’s piece, her husband Bill Keller wrote another opinion piece about Adams for The New York Times.

Emma and Bill Keller explicitly place themselves in the role of traditional audience to Adams’ tweets. Instead of participating in the conversation and seeing themselves as Adams’ peers or friends, they are readers of a text, members of a large audience watching a performance: “Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it,” Bill Keller writes, and his use of the term “onstage” is revealing.

Continue Reading →

16. January 2014 by Jill
Categories: social media, Visualise me | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Filtering reality

I’m reading an interesting just-published paper by Meryl Alper, “War on Instagram”, about how (read it at New Media & Society or without the paywall at The paper discusses how photojournalists are using smartphones and in particular Instagram and Hipstamatic to produce documentary images that are heavily filtered, like Damon Winter’s “A Grunt’s Life” series for the New York Times.

Photos taken with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times.

Photos taken by Damon Winter with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times. (

Another example is Lowy’s Hipstamatic photo of Hurricane Sandy, which made it to the front page of Time Magazine:


Yesterday, Talan posted a link to Filter Fakers, a website that provides us with the useful community service of alerting us to Instagram photos that are incorrectly tagged #nofilter. As Talan wrote, “who cares?”


Photojournalists care, it seems.

Lowy’s concession to his critics – “toning down” the illustrative style of the very Hipstamatic photo filters that won him acclaim – touches upon an endless discussion about understanding all photography as a manipulated interaction between style and substance, and a timeless debate over the ethics of combining photojournal- ism with aesthetics. (Alper 2013: 4)

[S]cholars such as Luc Boltanski (1999) have argued that the aestheticization of what we see in the media emotionally and morally insulates viewers from the suffering of others. (5)

That’s a point made by Susan Sontag, too, as Alper notes on page 7: a worry is that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war”.

Part of the concern is, it seems, the eternal “but who is the author?” question. Alper quotes news photographer Nick Stern, who wrote that

It’s not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It’s not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It’s the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image.

Does that matter, though? And aren’t our images always mediated through the work of others? If not through the code written by app designers in Palo Alto, then by the mechanics of a camera designed and redesigned by a series of people? No photographer is in control of the whole process. The best one can do is choose between different apps, cameras, processes, chemicals, software, papers all made by other people. It’s interesting how the idea of the lone genius still remains.

The place of these images in a stream – or alternatively, on the front page of Time Magazine – is also worth considering. Alper argues that the meaning of an iconic and disturbing war photo such as the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm would have had a very different effect in a news feed between “photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed” (7).

I’m not convinced that this is particularly different from the ways we encountered photographs a few decades again. On television, in a news broadcast sandwiched between commercials and soap operas, or in a newspaper with ads and trivia on the next page. The very reproducibility of the photograph means that it will be encountered in many different settings, and not always in serious, museum or documentary style contexts.

The roughness of the smartphone image also claims a kind of authenticity, and Alper quotes two different  embedded war photojournalists who chose to use smartphones to mimic the soldiers’ own photographs. Alper discusses some definitely problems with this too simple idea:

Winter and Guttenfelder’s rationale falls into an anthropological trap, justifying the use of the iPhone and Hipstamatic as “naturalistic” because they empathize with how soldiers produce their own images of the war. The professional embedded photojournal- ist using Hipstamatic performs a sort of imagined autoethnography of soldiers’ own media-making practices. This performance is based on individual photographers’ highly time-bound conception of the kind of photos these soldiers would take if imbued with professional skills and competencies, as if that were the only distinction between the lived experiences of soldiers and embedded photojournalists. Embedded photojournalists are not observers, but rather, participant observers: their presence invariably alters the setting of their shots, regardless of the type of camera and the degree to which the device becomes silent and unnoticed.

The “imperfect” Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the “subjec- tive” perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photo- journalist. Adopting the perspective of soldiers might be appealing for photojournalists because soldier participation and visibility in the representation of war can often appear to be a “bottom up” alternative to “top down” political and military positioning (e.g., Andén-Papadopoulos, 2009; Smith and McDonald, 2011). This appeal to the vernacular in professional war media production is a reflection of what Turner (2010) calls the “demotic turn” in popular culture, or the increased visibility of “ordinary people” in media production without a necessarily more democratic public sphere.


These photos, constructed around an image of the hypothetical soldier, do not account for the polyvocality of multiple soldier perspectives and voices, speaking for troops by speaking through their imagined mode of photography. (11-12)

Alper doesn’t really discuss the soldiers’ own photographs, other than as a contrast to the professional photojournalists’ photographs, but in her conclusion she raises the #nofilter question that I started this post with. Obviously, there is no real way in which a photograph can be “unfiltered”:

Whether or not a photo has been processed with the sepia tinge of the Sutro filter, or the washed-out Walden, all photos taken though a mobile photo app such as Instagram or Hipstamatic are in some way “filtered.” Technically, even basic Instagram photos take the shape of a square, versus the automatic rectangular dimensions of an iPhone’s built- in camera. Ideologically, “#nofilter” serves a social and cultural purpose for those who employ it. The claim to clearly demarcate the real from the artificial says more perhaps about the person taking the photo than about the photo itself.

I’m reading as much as I can find right now about ways in which technology filters and mediates self-representations, like through selfies or with a Fitbit or on Tumblr or Instagram – so if you know of any work I should be reading, please let me know!

07. November 2013 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

note for post on surveillance being cool

Facebook is just as interesting in reading between the lines as Google is. In the Facebook Third Quarter Earnings Conference Call on October 30, Mark Zuckerberg explained that one of Facebook’s main goals is “understanding the world”:

What I mean by this is that every day, people post billions of pieces of content and connections into the graph and in doing this, they’re helping to build the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world. A big part of why this works is that people can share things with any audience they want. They don’t have to share publicly with everyone at the same time; they can share with just their friends. So this means that the model of the world that people are building in our systems includes things that people only want to share with just a few people. This has the potential to be really powerful, but right now, we actually do very little to utilize the knowledge that people have shared to benefit everyone in our community.


05. November 2013 by Jill
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Oxford University Press’s excellent Tumblr page

I was very impressed with Oxford University Press’s Tumblr page, which is actually exciting enough to be consistently on Tumblr’s trending blogs list (you can only see the trending list in the mobile app, not on the website) and thought their obvious skill in finding tidbits from academic books that appeal to Tumblr’s young demographic might mean they’d have good books on digital culture. But although they have an interesting series on Digital Politics (check out the upcoming Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in Politics by Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner) I can’t find anything interesting on digital culture or new media from a humanities perspective. Their media studies section is astounding: they list the subcategories as “television, radio and film” – that’s it!? This is 2013, for goodness sakes! Am I missing some great books, or is Oxford simply not very interested in digital culture?

10. October 2013 by Jill
Categories: Blogging | Leave a comment

Adapting your social media rhetoric to Tumblr or Facebook

There’s a whole rhetoric to Tumblr, and as I wrote yesterday, animated gifs are an important part of it. Compare, for instance, The White House’s official Tumblr page to the now suddenly quite staid-seeming Facebook communication. Here’s the Tumblr image they posted the day before the government shutdown:


Even the italic font used is the one commonly used on subtitling of loops from videos. And here’s the version they put on Facebook:


Until yesterday I hadn’t realised that The White House was even on Tumblr, and I certainly hadn’t considered their alternate rhetorical strategies. Are there other sites where they speak differently again? Instagram has the same image as Facebook, and Twitter has the text.

Do you know of other social media actors that use different strategies on Tumblr and Facebook?

05. October 2013 by Jill
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I should have written about animated gifs on Tumblr in the 2nd edition of Blogging!

Of course once anything is published you realise all the things you would love to add. Looking at how my seventeen-year-old was reading about the US government shutdown not in newspapers or on Twitter but through Tumblr’s animated gifs and reblogged screenshots of tweets (and some lengthier Tumblred analyses as well) I realised, again, how much duller – and certainly less animated – my own social media feeds are. I don’t think I mentioned animated gifs in Blogging 2nd ed, which was clearly an oversight.

underconstruction-animatedAnimated gifs are not at all what they were in the 90s. You remember, the little moving pixellated icons, like this the “under construction” icon?

Nowadays animated gifs are more like this.


That’s a “reaction gif” of Oprah being moved. There are whole repositories full of reaction gifs for any occassion: happy, shocked, bored, annoyed, etc. I chose this one to show you largely because it’s “only” half a MB large, and the first ones I picked were 2 MB each, which of course is one of the issues with the animated gif. They are bloated giants and horrible if your internet connection isn’t fast or if you’re paying by the megabyte. Or if you like me have a tendency to clutter your computer with too many files so you don’t have enough free memory for the computer to keep all these huge gifs running at the same time. Video would be more efficient, but animated gifs are so versatile that they stay popular.

This piece by Stallio is a glorious example of animated gif art, though I suspect this is not the dominant aesthetic.


Pioneering net artist Olia Lialina is also working in animated gifs now. Here’s an example of her work:olia-lialina-animated-hoola-hoop

Lialina knows her history, cares about file size (this one’s only 169 kb) and specifically uses the transparency that gifs allow, which is not at all used by the video-style gifs. So I could put those hoolahoopers onto any background I wanted. You can see how that works on Lialina’s website.

Other examples are the subtitled comic-like gifs laying out a sequnece from a few minutes of, say, The Colbert Report.

This essay by Daniel Rourke provides a nice brief catalogue of the different kinds of animated gifs, with an interesting introduction where he talks about Walter Benjamin’s idea of the mimetic and how these gifs speak without words. Their silence is certainly also interesting. Rourke’s piece seems one of just a few scholarly works on animated gifs. I found nothing relevant when I searched Google Scholar for “animated gif”, but if you add in “tumblr” you get a few essays. Tumblr is certainly a hub for this, as are Reddit and 4chan.

If you know of more academic work on animated gifs, or simply have some favourites you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it!

04. October 2013 by Jill
Categories: Blogging, Digital Art, social media | 2 comments

The second edition of my book “Blogging” is out!

Hooray! When I came home from Chercher le texte, the 2013 Electronic Literature Organization conference, I found a copy of the new and revised edition of my book Blogging waiting for me in my mailbox!

Cover of Jill Walker Rettberg: Blogging 2nd ed (Polity Press, 2013)

The second edition of my book Blogging!

A lot has changed in blogging since the first edition came out in 2008. Blogs are still important, but we often read them through other social media sites, finding links to blog posts on Facebook or Twitter. Blogs have grown increasingly image-centric, and the second edition discusses how this changes blogs, and how new image-centric ecosystems like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr can be seen as a form of blogging. Microblogging and reblogging are another new development, as are the more specialised and often commercialised blogs we see now.

Right now you can buy the book in the UK (or online from, for instance) and it will be released in the US in a few more weeks.

If you want to see what kinds of things I talk about, you can browse through the texts and blogs I have referenced in the new edition. I’ll post the table of contents too, later.


02. October 2013 by Jill
Categories: Blogging | Tags: , , | 1 comment

No digital texts in English literature classes, please! Digital dualism and educational policy

I hadn’t realised that the UK curriculum for GCSE English Literature (for 14-16 year olds) explicitly excludes any kind of electronic literature, as Alexander Pask-Hughes writes in a post on Cyborgology today. He quotes the  proposed content descriptions – I suppose “proposed” means they’re not yet approved, but don’t know much about the UK system so fill me in here if I’m wrong:

Study of high quality English literature should be the principal focus of study for this GCSE. Digital texts must not be included. GCSE specifications in English literature should be designed on the basis that students’ reading should include whole texts.

Alexander Pask-Hughes reads this in terms of “digital dualism”, a worldview where the digital is seen as fundamentally different from and often less valuable than the non-digital.

In Norway, the digital is very explicitly included in school curricula, and “digital skills” are defined as one of five basic skills to be part of every subject in schools, along with orals skills, reading, writing and numeracy. One of the goals for high school students in Norwegian is that they should be able to

beskrive samspillet mellom estetiske virkemidler i sammensatte tekster, og reflektere over hvordan vi påvirkes av lyd, språk og bilder (“Describe the interplay between aesthetic techniques in multimodal texts, and reflect over how we are affected by sound, language and images.”)

Of course, Norwegian includes not just literature but language and culture, and has a decades-long tradition of including analyses of advertising, for instance. So adding digital and multimodal texts to the mix doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a general acceptance that poetry could be digital as easily as printed.

In the EU, digital competencies are defined as one of eight key competencies for life-long learning, and are seen as a transversal skill set that should be learnt across subjects in schools, not just in one single subject. That’s great if it works, but also means that nobody has sole responsibility for digital competencies.

Perhaps classing “digital competencies” as a skill set also allows us to keep that digital dualism. Digital skills mean being able to use technology. Maybe that allows us to continue to see technology as separate from the rest of our society and culture, and to continue to see digital skills as separate from the other key skills we learn at school.

01. September 2013 by Jill
Categories: Electronic literature, Teaching | 1 comment

An intensity chart of my levels of busy-ness since 2007

I just noticed the year view of iCal gives me a nice intensity chart of how busy my life has been over the last few years, at least in terms of how many meetings and calendar events  I have.

Calendar-2007  Calendar2008

In 2007 it looks as though my spring was fairly light, but things heat up for Scott and my wedding in early June, and the rest of the year is fairly busy too. I was on sabbatical in the academic year of 2007/8, but still had lots of appointments, it seems. Our daughter was born in April, and the rest of the year was busy in a way not tracked by calendars.

Calendar2009  Calendar2010

By mid-2010 I was pregnant again, and I wonder whether my pregnancy exhaustion forced me to be a little less busy, because the calendar’s not very busy. I remember I was napping every afternoon and still going to bed by nine pm. Benji was born in February 2010 and you can very clearly see my parental leave – and how things got very busy again when I was back at work in the autumn, although Scott and I were each only working 50% that semester.

Calendar2011  Calendar2012

2011 and 2012 look pretty steady – you can’t even really spot my summer holidays, which seems a little sad.


This last year very clearly shows the election campaign all spring, though. A lighter summer, and hopefully the next few months will keep some of that nice yellow, as I’m on sabbatical again.

I suppose this isn’t a very useful visualisation, but I had forgotten that all my calendar events for the last several years are actually archived and probably I could get more information out of them than this. It’s also nothing to what dedicated self-trackers are tracking. Here’s a snippet from Chris Dancy’s calendar where he tracks everything he does in great detail.


My simple iCal view won’t yield the kind of self-analysis that Chris Dancy’s calendar will, but it’s interesting because it’s generated entirely without my intending it to be generated – I’m just using my calendar to keep track of my appointments, and when I suddenly click on the Year view, I see my life, portrayed in levels of busy-ness from yellow to red.

29. August 2013 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

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