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Selfies Take Their Place as Art in Portrait Exhibition

4-4-14

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

He smiles, he celebrates, dresses up and dresses down, even makes visual jokes. And in Zimmerli Art Museum’s latest exhibition on portraiture, he’s generating a lot of buzz.

These 445 self-portraits are thought to have been taken in a photo booth or booths over the course of two to three decades. And while those involved certainly know the man’s face, no one knows his name.

“I was in New York at an antique show,” recalls the collection’s owner, Donald Lokuta, a photography professor at Kean University. “I saw examples of these—only 9 or 12 of them—and they were displayed in someone’s booth. I said, ‘How many do you have?’ and he said, “Oh, I have three or four hundred.”

Lokuta speculates that the man in the pictures may have been a Photomat maintenance worker who tested repairs by taking his own photo.

“I realized that it’s very uncommon to have someone make multiple photographs through different times of their life,” says Lokuta.

The museum has dubbed the collection “445 selfies”, playing on the newest phenomenon in portraiture.

“It’s taken on this new explosive interest because of the smart phone and selfies,” says Susan Sidlauskas, Co-Curator of the exhibit and an art history professor at Rutgers University.

“Artists have always been interested in using their own presence, their own human face, as a representation of other larger sort of human issues, but also as a representation of their own thoughts and desires,” explains exhibit Co-Curator Donna Gustafson. “So, the selfie really grows out of a tradition of self-portraiture.”

It’s this derivation that raises the question: are selfies art?

“Now it’s being looked at as a real kind of portraiture,” says Sidlauskas, “And critics like Jerry Saltz from New York Magazine, this young woman [named] Alicia Eler, have begun to really look at it as a kind of portraiture that’s developing its own aesthetic.”

“I think it’s very important to always express yourself with selfies or whatever type of art that you like,” says Rutgers student Jorge Alfaro.

“If they do it, have intentions, and are aware of them, then that should make it art,” says Ryan Griner, an art student at Rutgers University.

In an exhibit surrounded by paintings from the 1800s and Warhol’s Screen Tests, though, Lokuta thinks the anonymous man would find his selfies out of place.

“What would he say if he saw these photographs at the Zimmerli Museum now and hundreds people were looking at them? I have no idea, but I think he would be totally amazed,” says Lokuta. “But I think, yeah, these are self-portraits. There’s no question.”

Only time will tell if selfies will find a permanent place in the art world, but if they do, portraiture and collections like our anonymous man, will have laid the groundwork.