The Insane World of Everyday People

I experienced an odd moment of synchronicity this morning. After reading “Death Stares,” Tamara Kneese’s essay for The New Inquiry that examines selfies, narcissism, and death in the digital age, I then came across this passage from photographer Mike Mandel’s Myself: Timed Exposures, published in 1971:

For the past year self portraits have been my constant passion. At every opportunity I would fasten my camera to its tripod and steal from the house out into the insane world of everyday people, in hope of recording a bit of real fantasy. And as the world of fantasy is governed by another dimension in time, I had to learn to react and compose my photograph with great speed. The self-timer buzzes for ten full seconds, allowing the world to change its complexion right in front of my static lens. It is this spontaneous quality that is so exciting to me. The people react to my presence, to the buzzing machine a few feet away, to the words I have to say – suddenly, click! The machine has made its ‘decisive moment’ and only the film knows what latent treasure it owns; for I was busy being the subject matter and will have to wait until after processing to see what all really happened – and what expressions did all those people have there standing in front of me, anyway?

Mandel’s point about the “decisive moment” of the machine is worth thinking about. What he’s referring to is the “decisive moment” that a ten-second camera timer created when he was shooting self-portraits back in the 1970s, and how the scene within the frame could change dramatically in the space of that time. Since the portraits were staged in public places, an effort to create “a bit of real fantasy” was part of the appeal for Mandel. Who would walk into the frame? What expressions would be on the faces of these people? What would be happening in the background?

Today, this notion of “real fantasy” has become an integral part of a collective digital narcissism and the way that people portray their lives for an online audience. Except instead of leaving it up to chance like Mandel, individuals now often use photographs to manipulate reality in increasingly odd ways — whether attempting to convince the public that a doting boyfriend/girlfriend documents naptime, or expressing grief in the form of a funereal Sassy-inspired photo shoot. Through all the noise, one truth remains clear: the line between fantasy and reality has been permanently altered.

(Photograph: Mike Mandel. Caption: Selection from Myself: Timed Exposures.)