A Guide to Zoom Self-Portraiture

Screenshot of two paintings in separate browser windows. Left: Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (1666). Right: Eduard Charlemont, Artist in Hist Studio (1890). [All images by Richard Mapes]

It would be absurd to post the same selfie every day. Yet, in the midst of a pandemic, composing one’s own portrait in a video feed has become part of daily life. While I wait for conference calls to start, my own image coyly averts his eyes from mine; incapable of meeting as they do in a mirror, the versions of my eyes diverge unnervingly. Still, despite my unease, my gaze continuously returns to my own image. Is my figure centered? Am I close enough to the camera? Is my home clean? Is my scene professional, yet inviting? Despite the dissonance between the eyes on my screen and the eyes of my body, I fixate on my likeness. It is not quite surveillance, this gaze, and not quite narcissism — at least not the variety of narcissism that seeks pleasure. Rather it is the soft, daily narcissism we all exhibit when fashioning a live self-portrait.

My own image coyly averts his eyes from mine; incapable of meeting as they do in a mirror, the versions of my eyes diverge unnervingly.

My self-fashioned image sets itself apart from traditional portraits in that, in digital space, it is in motion. Yet I recognize now that I’ve inadvertently carried tropes of painterly portraiture into the new format. Composition, content, and technique have mutated during social distancing, and virtual “spaces” of work are overlaid with actual domestic settings; the living of daily life bleeds into self-representation in unexpected and sometimes uncanny ways, destabilizing attempts to produce controlled readings of one’s self from one’s own perspective, and from the perspective of others.

To begin the construction of my portrait, I direct my webcam toward a specific view of my apartment. Though I may imagine a fictional world that extends beyond the frame of any painted portrait, anything not actually painted into the scene does not, of course, exist. In video conferencing, however, I know — and my interlocutor knows — that the items in my portraits are not the only items in my world. I’m reminded of Eduard Charlemont’s reinterpretation of Vermeer’s Art of Painting (1666). Charlemont’s Vermeer in His Studio (1890) reverses the frame within the scene to reveal a female figure. It is her gaze, Charlemont implies, that sets the frame of Vermeer’s original scene. In a similar way, my video feed betrays — even if it doesn’t show — certain realities about my desk. My desktop equipment sways each time I move my mouse; four flexible, steel Eames-era hairpin table legs resonate with the oscillating mass atop my oak worksurface, a motion visible as a quiver in my video.

Screenshot of two paintings in separate browser windows. Left: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Louis XIV (1701). Right: Jackson Pollock, Untitled (c. 1945).

In traditional portraiture, the figure maintains hierarchical dominance. Hyacinth Rigaud’s Portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Robes (1701) centers the Sun King; gold engravings on the column bases behind him are further layered behind billowing, luxurious fabrics that part like the Red Sea to reveal a pair of perfect royal “pins” propped up on platform pumps. But I wonder if my Zoom portrait has more in common with Pollock than Rigaud, in that any part of the “canvas” is as important as any other; rather than a hierarchy of subject and background, the eye is meant to find something of interest wherever it falls. All the objects visible in my video self-portrait are, similarly, held in an equal, somehow “allover” plane; the lamp behind me is as important as my face. There are objects within my reach that I can choose to add to my scene, depending on the conversation at hand: a rainbow-striped porcelain coffee mug, my phone displaying news feeds about murdered Black transgender women, parts of my thesis titled “The Perfect Boyfriend Builder,” half a roll of Tums, and a printed photograph of Marsha P. Johnson. Moving objects in and out of the frame, I diminish the dominance of my own figure in favor of other forms. A wandering cat casts a shadow as it passes my window, and frequent ambulance sirens distract from the sovereignty of my presence.

Screenshot of two paintings in separate browser windows. Left: Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu. Right: Edvard Munch Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu (both 1919).

It is this re-structuring of relations between subject and object that draws the attention of Rosalind E. Krauss in her classic essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”(1976).1Rosalind E. Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October vol. 1 (Spring 1976), 50–64. Krauss argues that the process of “bracketing oneself out” from the rest of the world for the sake of confronting one’s own image is a recursive process that transcends mere reflection. In an attempt to isolate my figure, I use a black virtual background to mask everything else. This background cannot possibly be a physical object in my room. But even as I try to ignore my surroundings and confront my visage alone, a second subject remains in my scene nonetheless: a shimmering outline of digital uncertainty as the AI tries to track my silhouette in space. I switch strategies, and turn on the “beautifying” filter in my video-call app. White dots appear “painted” on my irises, mimicking the reflections of studio lighting. In two paintings from 1919, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu, Edvard Munch accomplishes a similar “filtering” effect. His face in one image is blurred and muted, defined and alert in the other. Like Munch, I use the modalities of the medium at hand to render my changing position somewhere between physical wellbeing and mental distress.

It is not quite surveillance, this gaze; rather it is the soft, daily narcissism we all exhibit when fashioning a live self-portrait.

I’m not comfortable with the idea that my webcam allows me to peer through a different set of “eyes”; I am even less comfortable with the tacit exhibition of my state of mind. But the strangest realization of all is that what is exhibited are not elements of some alien being. What truly unnerves me is the fading illusion that I am able to construct personae that are distinct from my possessions and the ambient qualities of my home. Facets of my life are bleeding through boundaries to construct a new understanding of myself, one always consciously composed of at least three parts: my body, my mind, and my environment.

Looking out into the world via my computer, I wonder if this quarantine-driven persona-renovation isn’t long overdue. Do I miss the freedom of unconsciously slipping from one self to another without having to think of my immediate settings as more than mere accessories? I’ve been known to say that I rent an apartment only to have a place to sleep, shower, and shave. In reality, I’ve been privileged to employ this trite statement as an act of distancing from certain realities of my life. In the same vein, I’ve now and then adopted urban scenes as backdrops — seeking out ever-fresher settings to incorporate in my ongoing insta-portrait. But lately, certain realities of my home have appeared as if pasted to my flesh, and not always with my consent. Things I sought to occlude have become evident, and this is uncomfortable. Still, despite my daily discomfort in confronting an unfamiliar self-portrait, I am beginning to grapple with its message: Not every portrait has the privilege of being self-constructed.

Notes

  1. Rosalind E. Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October vol. 1 (Spring 1976), 50–64. doi:10.2307/778507.

About the Author

Richard Mapes

Richard Mapes is currently a Masters Candidate at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Prior to his studies at SCI-Arc, Richard focused on merging design possibilities with his Fulbright research on the intersections between culture and urban-renewal policies. His research at SCI-Arc focuses on ways of working, queer themes in architecture and design, and meditating on points of contact between individuals and contemporary cultures.