The Seattle Selfie Museum is, foremost, a failure of language. Situated in Post Alley, just past the gum wall, the popup space opened earlier this month. Yet though it is a “museum,” it displays neither art nor artifacts meant to stir. Even if anything did seem like art, well, the context sort of precludes that.
Instead, you pay $29 for an hour of access to about 20 backdrops split between two floors. Nice lighting! Emphatic colors and neon! A ball pit! Whimsically big crayons in a coloring-book room! The sort of stuff that pops on a phone screen. Then you wander through taking pictures. Which gets to the second verbal oddity: It isn’t really for taking “selfies.” I floated around for a half hour and watched only one person photograph herself (and she had someone photographing her). Most everyone else had a companion toting a DSLR. Because the backgrounds are the draw, you can’t take an especially interesting actual selfie most anywhere but the Yayoi Kusama–plagiarizing infinity mirror room. Though when Crosscut interviewed the owners, they claimed it's not a ripoff. (A stricter name for the space might be Instagram Photo Studios, but that sounds so cheap, so lacking in museum’s erudite texture, doesn’t it?)
This seems a fascinating and telling turn of language. Has a selfie ceased to be a photo you take of yourself and become just a certain type of vanity portrait?
Since we started taking them, selfies have been equated with narcissism and self-promotion. But that read feels simplistic. They can also be a form of expression and communication, of visual narration, a way to jog memory of a fading past and your place in it. Yet you probably won’t achieve such aims here. Unlike the gum wall outside—which is just as much a photo-op haven—the Selfie Museum erases place. Even the word “Seattle” in the name feels like a failure. You aren’t here. You aren’t anywhere. You might be in Denver (this is the second location of a sort of franchise). Or Hollywood's Museum of Selfies, which claimed the Denver Selfie Museum was taking its "intellectual property." It is in the deepest way dislocating: a place that exists only to be seen elsewhere, with backgrounds that override the person being photographed (seemingly the point of the selfie). Instead the photos become a collective expression of a platform (Instagram), and the aesthetics that translate well to it, the physical world recast in the image of other images.
That's not ultimately a terrible thing. The happiest visitors I saw in the space were families, taking pictures of kids. If you want to go to a museum only for pictures, please, head to the Seattle Selfie Museum. But if you want an experience beyond that of taking a photo, head elsewhere.
The day after I stopped by the Selfie Museum, I visited the National Nordic Museum’s new exhibition Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives, a show that opened the same day as the Seattle Selfie Museum and felt like its precise inverse. Riis, a Danish American photographer, spent the late 1800s documenting New York City’s crowded slums and tenements, which then contained three quarters of the city’s population (New York swelled from a million to 3.5 million residents in the last quarter of the 1800s). He deployed a new technology (the flash bulb) to shepherd public attention.
In the exhibition, some of his images are displayed—small, battered things—along with plenty of text. You can see a girls’ kindergarten class in a tenement building, bodies blurring from a slow shutter. Or a man in a makeshift bed, held up on two barrels (the show also contains a replica of that bed).
In the next room you’ll find Legacy: Social Justice in Contemporary Danish Photojournalism, a companion show, centered on some of our biggest public problems. Lasse Bak Mejlvang’s photos display the surreal, dystopian impact of pollution in places like New Delhi: skies smeared with smog, tufts of foam floating down a river. Sofie Amalie Klougart focuses on African migrants caught in a reception center in Sicily, while trying to enter Europe: a few possessions on a bed, two boys sitting in a blankly bureaucratic room, the precise whorls of a braceleted hand. And Magnus Cederlund displays portraits of homeless people in Copenhagen, taken over twenty years, each shot with the frankness of Riis’s images.
Pretty much forever, there’ve been arguments about what the arts actually effect. Is our feeling an impetus to change? Or do we go to a show like this and take the subjects’ suffering a testament to our own virtue—that we swelled with sympathy while staring down stark images of homelessness? If so, we might accomplish little more than a visit to the Selfie Museum. We might actually accomplish less.
Yet I don’t think that’s the case. Riis’s photos rippled all the way to policy changes and had Teddy Roosevelt calling him the “ideal American citizen.” Though few pieces of art usher in direct change. Either way, a show like this opens up a little of the space in the self to the other.
Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives
Feb 1–Mar 15, National Nordic Museum, $18