Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bonfire of the Vanities

I'd like to respond to Jessica's post about hipster subculture; specifically, the part about photoblogs. For the most part, I agree with what she said, but I'm going to play a kind of Devil's Advocate to her.

It's no secret that I love getting my picture taken. In fact, most people I know--including both of the writers of this blog--have scanned through tons of photoblogs, searching for photos of ourselves from the night before. We have all tagged ourselves in pictures; to put it bluntly, we all like the attention.

"So then what is it about the flash of a camera that feels so goddamn validating? Are we that easily tempted by the monster of narcissism, or is it something more?" This is what I consider to be the central question of Jessica's post. Oftentimes I hear people complain about how everyone who goes to these parties is obsessed with getting their picture taken, as opposed to, you know, having a good time.

But I must point something out: this narcissism is not limited to "hipsters." People love getting their photo taken. Check Facebook; most people have hundreds and hundreds of photos of themselves at the mall, in front of their dorm, or driving with their friends. Some kids pose with their families; others use Polaroids or disposable cameras to create a more "original," vintage look. Point is, people take these photos and then upload and tag them for the world to see.
Nothing is secret--that much is true. But to only talk about that in context of, say, Misshapes misses the point.

When you go to your friend's house party, there is no actual need for photography. Everyone is having a good time, and besides the obligatory few who will get wasted, get sick, and then get drawn on while they're passed out, most will remember at least the key events of the party. So "preserving the memories" as an excuse for photography is flimsy at best.

No, I think it's something else. People like to feel special. Yes, it feels good when someone you don't know who has a professional-looking camera and a bunch of followers deems you worthy of attention. But the same thing happens with friends. When your friends with her Radio-Shack-bought discount digital camera takes a photo of you talking to your friends, feels good. Don't deny it. Don't believe me? If you really didn't care, you wouldn't pose or tag the photo. But people do pose and people do tag those photos, so they do care.

I don't think that this sort of narcissism is unhealthy or wrong, per se; in fact, I think it's a useful outlet for otherwise anonymous students and city-dwellers to have their (pixelated) moment in the (virtual) sun. It's a self-esteem booster, getting your picture taken. At the very least, you can show off your new outfit to those unable to attend to the party.

Moreover, I believe there is a certain legitimacy to photoblogs. To say that picture-taking at parties is limited to the Internet age ignores the influential and often fascinating work of photographers like Patrick McMullan, whose photos were not as widespread but equally valued. In fact, if anything, the Internet has cheapened the appreciation of the nightlife photograph; it used to be that there were only one or two guys running around with cameras, whose work didn't get published the next day, so if they took your photo it really meant something. Nowadays it still feels pretty good but at the same time, once you've graced the Misshapes wall a couple of times, it loses that special quality that most people who care at all feel upon first viewing their photo.

Point is, a lot of people pay to go to these parties, and even if you get in for free and score a drink ticket or two, you're still in this environment where music and fashion and all these things collide to hopefully provide for a good time. It would only make sense, then, that people would want to see what others were wearing. I am, admittedly, a Ruff Club regular, but on the off week I can't go I still like to browse the photos, so that I may see my friends and see what I missed. I'm not saying this is the primary reason people care about LastNightsParty, but it's a big reason why the shutterbugs do what they do.

Also, I think that there are interesting and noticeable aesthetic differences between the photobloggers. A Bronques photo is very different from a Cobrasnake photo, and neither of them compare with the stuff that appears on Ambrel.

What I'm trying to say is, don't knock the photoblogs. If you're aware of them then you've probably been on them, and you've probably looked at yourself on them. We're all vain, but it's part of human nature. We all care about our image; whether that's shallow or just a fulfillment of a basic human need for self-esteem is another debate for another time. And believe it or not, getting your picture taken does not guarantee a fun night; nor does not getting your picture taken mean you look bad or the night is lame. They are an accessory to the cause, and that cause is releasing yourself of all the stress and worry that plague us during the day and, for a couple of hours, getting drunk and getting down. Yeah, that sounds a little bit lame, but we're all a bit misshapen, right?


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