Saatchi Gallery: From Selfie to Self-Expression



Cultural historians of the future might pause to reflect that the early 21st century's most conspicuous and significant form of personal expression evolved not through the traditional prisms of music or youth culture but via the advent of smartphone camera photography: the selfie has infiltrated our lives to an all-pervasive degree. 

The Saatchi Gallery's new photography exhibition, 'From Selfie To Self-Expression', represents an attempt to chart the frontiers of this new digitalised visual universe; how the smartphone is augmenting and feeding the social media-driven expression of an 'active online identity' as well as delivering an on the hip immediacy that makes other forms of visual documentation appear stilted and formal. Whipping out your phone for a posed, mirror or group shot (the 'slightly angled to the side with a tilt of the head' stance is recommended for optimum results) has quickly become normalised within our culture, as ubiquitous as going for a beer or enjoying a cup of coffee. 

The Saatchi show, conceived in collaboration with Huawei Consumer Business Group, is a rich, sprawling paean to the creative possibilities of smartphone photography medium that also locates it within the tradition of a centuries-long narrative of artistic self-portraiture: Rembrandt, Basquiat, Van Gogh, Velazquez, Warhol and Picasso are juxtaposed with Cindy Sherman's pseudo-film stills, Tracy Emin's notorious 'I've Got It All', George Harrison's Taj Mahal selfie, Alison Jackson's mock-ups of the Royal Family, Juno Calypso's saturated colour video art, Amalia Ulman's Instagram post project and numerous iconic examples of the digital form from both members of the public and the world of celebrity. 

The great, mad, bad and banal are all represented, from an imposing screen version of Velazquez's magisterial 'Las Meninas', Lucian Freud nudes and Warhol screen prints through to performance art, Kirill Oreshkin's roof-topping, an early image of Stanley Kubrick, Emin and her bank notes, Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2 and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's meta-selfie installation.

Pioneered by the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and taking off in the middle ages, the self-portrait has always been a fanciful, intriguing and ambiguous act, as much a case of mask-wearing, role-playing, artifice and guessing games as that of presenting an imagined or projected 'you'. Accompanied by a showcase for ten young British photographers including Laura Pannack, Tom Hunter and Emma Critchley, this exhibition concludes that 'self-image' is a fundamental, intrinsic facet of human existence; contemporary society's putative narcissism is more reflective of wider access to democratic technology. The novelty lies in the approbation on social media networks and how others engage with our self-portraits. Glamorising our own lives is as old as the hills.