Filtering Through the Ages
Humanity’s obsession with their own image
Since records began, and probably long before that, humans have been obsessed with their own image. You could be forgiven for thinking this obsession has started recently: Facebook, Instagram, the thrill of seeing your image pop up momentarily on Snapchat, wondering who in the world saw it and what they thought, before it disappears back into the ether. But this isn’t the case.
We’ve all ogled over old photos: Victorian families, stoic and unsmiling, their one chance to imprint their faces on the world before they turn to dust (we can’t afford to go to the photographer every year, Margaret). These family portraits, like our seemingly modern obsession with the self, reveal a drive to be preserved and exalted in a way which polishes reality, often bearing little resemblance to the model. No doubt, many of these pallid Victorian children were fun-loving, yet in their photographs they look as austere as grandparents. Why? Because self-control was all the rage and a smirk was surely the sign of a miscreant.¹
Yet, many families must have thought these cold expressions ludicrous: Look at the Butterworths, what a load of miserable fopdoodles, why won’t they crack a smile? It may as well be the voice in our heads the moment we see “that” friend upload another shot on Instagram, snarling into a muffin, looking sexy but hostile, with enlarged eyes, perfect skin and a tasty looking treat which is doubtless going straight into the bin once she’s finished smearing it over her lips. I wonder if the Butterworths asked the photographer to do a bit of touching up too — if that was even possible with Victorian equipment — so Genevieve’s wart wouldn’t look so pronounced. They’ve got an app for that these days (probably over 100 of them) but back then it would have to be a trick of the light, a carefully placed plaister,³ or some magic in the darkroom, and, while you’re at it, can you please do something about Henry’s face. He seems to be smiling!
I doubt much could have been done about Henry’s smile, or indeed Genevieve’s wart, but at…