In his 1931 “A Short History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin argued that “the renunciation of the human image is the most difficult of all things for photography.” Benjamin — like many modernist artists at the time — believed that art, and in particular photography, was most provocative when it at least tried to deemphasize the figure of the human as its primary subject. Such aesthetic rigor could help develop, in its viewers, what he called “politically educated sight,” a visual relation to the world that is developed through a feeling of “healthy alienation” in which “intimacies fall in favor of the illumination of details.”
Friends, Twitter mutuals, countrypeople — and with due apologies to Benjamin — let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren’s selfie line.
I first became aware of the selfie situation in the Warren campaign this summer when an image of Mary Nisi, feminist small business owner and long-time friend of mine, sandwiched between Warren and Kamala Harris went viral. Elizabeth Warren tweeted it, with the caption, “Running for President: That’s what women do!” Nisi’s expression in the image is evocative, sincere, and humorous. I recently spoke with her on the phone, curious to hear a little bit more about how the experience felt. The photo was taken in early June, before media coverage of Warren’s selfie strategies started up in earnest, and Nisi notes that the picture was not the product of this now-well-choreographed process but rather simply of her own gumption and being in the right place at the right time. And yet, even though Nisi had confidently bee-lined for the women of her own accord, when it came time to have the picture snapped, she had a feeling that she can only describe as “visceral and weird.” When Kamala Harris squeezed her arm, just prior to the click of the button, Nisi notes, “I started crying? I don’t know why.”
Her description of these surprise tears put me in mind of my own startling emotion on election day 2016. I barely liked Hillary Clinton, let alone had any faith that she’d help move the country toward any of the politically-necessary things — radical climate policy, well-funded public schools, housing equality, abortion rights for all — without which I desperately believe we are actually doomed, but I keenly remember kneeling on the floor of my home after I returned from voting, refreshing the growing archive of voting-booth selfies in that stupid Pantsuit Nation group and breaking into totally unexpected and fundamentally intimate sobs, somehow only just then letting myself feel the feeling of actually voting for a woman President.
Something about Elizabeth Warren’s selfie line speaks to exactly this strange mix of feeling, in which the intimacy Benjamin so deeply wanted to excise from politically-educated aesthetics erupts and becomes its own kind of illuminated detail. Selfies are a refinement in the contemporary, consumerist performance of intimate selfhood. When they first arrived on the pop cultural scene, with the advent of front-facing smart phone cameras, many mocked them: they were associated with young girls and vanity. They were dumb, materialistic, diminutive. But, like teen girls themselves, selfies persist; share don’t care, don’t @me. Even just the word “selfie” itself has caused some kind of linguistic, formal collapse: none of the portraits Warren is taking with her fans is actually a “selfie”: they are all snapshots taken by a staff member. But, of course “selfie” has come to simply mean: a picture of myself that I like. (If you doubt this, I encourage you to do a word search for “selfie” on any social media platform and marvel at word’s metastasis.) Renunciation of the human image has apparently been the most difficult dang thing of all time.
Warren’s selfie line, some recent scholars and commentators have asserted, is culturally significant as a visual retort to the fact that women Presidential candidates are almost always a priori perceived as shrill, unlikable, lacking in authority. She’s “normalizing” the idea of a woman President, they note. Portraiture has always played a central part in U.S. presidential and political culture: from the Landsdowne portrait of George Washington to the groundbreaking portraits of the Obamas, to Trump’s glower and shaved-down jowls, to George W. Bush’s seemingly successful (?!) laundering of his war crimes via a charming late-in-life turn to portrait painting.
Yet, in a relatively strange recent analysis of Warren’s specific use of portraiture, journalist Hannah Natanson went so far as to compare Warren’s selfie line with Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth-century political portraiture. The basic idea she floated (given ballast, weirdly, by the affirmations of a number of prominent Ivy-League scholars and historians) was that, like Douglass, Warren uses photographic images of herself to enter and accrue authority in a public sphere where her body is often unwelcome and almost always illegible. Photographic portraiture, in this analogy, is a powerful force cutting through the murky racism and sexism that otherwise clouds our common political cultures.
The analogy is clearly a reach — isn’t it at least as true that Warren’s selfie line is in conversation with Hillary Clinton’s chocolate chip cookie recipe? Both are attempts by a smart woman to connect with (and in Clinton’s case, ingratiate herself toward) a skeptical public using a popular, feminized, mass-media technique. Beyond that, proposing an equivalence between the struggle of Black Americans to achieve social and legal equality in the Reconstruction era and the struggle of a white woman to close the net favorability gap with Joe Biden in 2019 is a suspect piece of historicizing. Yet even as the Warren/Douglass analogy fails both on the big questions and the small, the impulse to compare the two is revealing about contemporary misconceptions about the power of portraiture both today, and in the past. Portraiture is, as Benjamin clearly recognized, one of the trickiest of visual genres, almost Biblical in its capacity to promise a type of revelation — intimate, interpersonal — that rarely seems to arrive.
Douglass’s portraits are compelling because they both solicit and confound this fantasy of revelation, and for good reason. In his portraits, Douglass is strong, powerful, stately, confident, and alone; he is not, however, offering the public much, if any, access into his inner life. This is by design. Douglass understood that the white people who constituted his most public audience wanted in: they wanted the intimate details, the feeling, the expression. And like many Black writers and public figures from the era, Douglass worked across his life to navigate these white desires, and figure out how to foil them, how to cultivate spaces of privacy that obviated disclosure. Political portraiture — sometimes termed “great man portraiture” by scholars — was a good genre for Douglass to mess around inside; he could exploit what it promised and helped produce — status and authority — while simultaneously revealing the genre for what it mostly was: an engine that propelled, recorded, and fortified genealogical white wealth and influence.
And in his writings about photography, Douglass is even more nuanced. Everyone cherry-picks Douglass’s one line from “Lecture on Pictures” about the democratic power of photography (“even the humblest servant girl. . .”) but his take on photography was incredibly multi-vocal. He worries over how celebrity portraiture turns individuals into “fixed facts,” describes how photography can be a bore and political photography in particular an absolute boondoggle, and recognizes in 1861 what Barthes will also in 1980, that photography produces a sort of “death in life” (“a man always looks dead”). For whatever reason, the historians quoted in Natanson’s article reduce the complexity of Douglass’s thoughts on photography, turning him into a mouthpiece for a number of debunked ideas about photography itself — that it’s an objective medium, that it always communicates truth. When Douglass describes how photography allows a sitter to make their “subjective nature objective” he’s not only making a truth claim! He’s simultaneously claiming a self that the institution of slavery and racism deny, and also unfolding how great it can feel to put all the mess of inwardness into a recognizable yet protected/static form, and then shut the door.
Elizabeth Warren, very much to the contrary, invites us in. From the selfie line to the social media videos of her dog Bailey romping around her kitchen, Warren cultivates intimacy, also for good reason. In the U.S., women politicians rarely advance without at least the appearance of hospitality, a willingness to invite everyone inside into a brightly lit party or a cozy night at home. Warren is in a particularly gendered bind as a “smart” woman candidate for President, a bind that I’m sure her end-of-semester student evaluations from university days have prepared her well for. The selfie is the perfect genre for Warren because selfies, unlike political portraiture, are bids for intimacy on many different levels: intimacy with oneself, with friends, with a virtual world. Elizabeth Warren’s selfies are compelling, then, for pretty much the opposite reason as Douglass’s: Warren’s meet the contemporary desire to read into, to treat portraits like windows rather than doors. Warren’s selfie line is both figure and ground of our increasingly access-obsessed world. Douglass’s example teaches us to be skeptical of this desire, even as his historical centrality offers evidence of how powerful portraiture’s fantasy of access can be.
If Douglass and Warren have anything in common, then, it’s neither in the effect of their images, nor their intention or stakes; it’s the more basic and simple fact that they both understand how to experiment with portraiture’s promise of revelation and intimacy for political ends. Viewers today like to imagine that they see something true about Douglass, about Warren, in the portraits that each political figure circulates in the world. In this fantasy, the frame drops out and we are brought into feeling communion with the reality of someone who we allow ourselves to dream might represent us, just as perfectly as we imagine our favorite pictures of ourselves do.
The campaign selfie, at least in Warren’s use of it, is not only a political message (“Politicians! They’re just like us!”) or a strategy (warm, approachable), exactly. It is a container, a holding environment for all of our confused and intimate ideas about self and community and belonging, a place to put those feelings that erupt out of us, unexpected, “visceral,” “weird.” One day soon, those feelings will need to go somewhere else. Perhaps then we will no longer see as through a glass darkly; maybe then we’ll see face to face, the details finally illuminated, unclouded by intimacy and desire. Until then, as fallen and feeling and unalienated participants in this nightmare world, it’s likely that selfies will continue to encourage us to mistake as human what is really, in the end, political.
Sarah Blackwood is the author of The Portrait’s Subject: Inventing Inner Life in the Nineteenth-Century United States, out in December from University of North Carolina Press.