As more and more of our lives are lived online, the spaces and networks within which we communicate and express ourselves become critical stages and playgrounds for the formation and construction of our identities. Facebook and other such social networks are not merely places where we connect with friends and family, but they are spaces where we make public our imagined and real selves. Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine's new book, The Significant Savages, is an encyclopedic collection of profile pictures or avatars that offers a nuanced perspective into the clichés and hopes of our online selves.
As anyone who has carefully crafted an online profile for Facebook, Google+ or an online dating site knows, your profile photo can say a lot about who you are and what you care about, but more importantly how you want others to see you. The dynamics of identity formation online has been the subject of much research by scholars such as Sherry Turkle, danah boyd and others. As would be expected, what initially seemed like a space with boundless freedom to construct ones identity is nevertheless still mapped within real-life spaces that are constrained and shaped by gender, class, race and culture.
Pujade-Lauraine's clever and disarming collection of avatars and profile pictures reveals these dynamics in a humorous, but compassionate manner. Organized into four parts along with an epilogue, Pujade-Lauraine has collected a massive number of profile pictures and organizes them into various categories – landscapes, pets/animals, cars/motorcycles/boats, bodybuilders and finally more random images like hot-air balloons or seashells. The one thing that is immediately apparent is the complete lack of actual personal portraits in these images. With the exception of the body-builders, who may or may not be the actual people, although we are led to believe not, the people whose profiles these images represent are absent. The profile portrait with all its own tropes and clichés could easily be the source for another book, but is left out of this collection. Instead, we are left with an assortment of identity signifiers that are at times obvious and repetitious, but also odd. What kind of person uses a German Sheppard or a well-toned and oiled body-builder to represent him or herself? Or a motorcycle? Or an abstracted shell? Why so many pets or cars?
Stripped of context, the images are organized into these different categories in the book with no text, save the belly-band, which offers a brief artist statement and declaration of intent. The images are all printed in a rough color halftone, which not only unifies the images visually, but also helps absorb them into a collective image bank. Paging through the book, one cannot help but think about what kind of person you are and which picture you would choose. I was immediately reminded of the options offered when you set-up a Macintosh. Do you pick the football or the lightning bolt? Or the robin's eggs? What will people think? How will you be judged?
Like many contemporary artists, such as Eric Kessel, Peter Piller, Penelope Umbrico and others, who are equal parts editor and artist, Pujade-Lauraine has used the vast riches of online imagery to create a body of work and that says something about the world and how we use images. Like the best work in this genre of internet image appropriation, the work transcends its immediate kitsch quality and subject matter through Pujade-Lauraine's incisive edit and the deeper questions the work asks. Although it might be easy to make fun of the images enclosed, we all use images to communicate something about ourselves. We are all bound, even in complete opposition, to the clichés and tropes of self-representation. The hopes and desires invested into our online selves reflect not only our own dreams, but also the aspirations we are taught to represent by the culture we live in, the media we consume, the friends we have and the images we consume and disseminate both online and off. While this book is not for everyone, fans of similar work and admirers of smart, but funny, conceptual work will enjoy this well-designed book.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.