Turning Our Facebook Photos Into Gallery-Worthy Portraiture



Ever since Will wrote a little post on ASL about MySpace angles and Adrant’s Steve Hall joined in, I’ve been really interested in how people share their identity online and how brands and artists qualify and elevate their choices.

Recently, I talked with New York based artist Matt Held about his new project that involves turning the Faecbook profile photos 200 average Facebook users and turning them into gallery-worthy portraiture. Matt describes his work saying,

“With the development of social networking sites, I’ve developed an interest in how people take simple or complex snapshots of themselves, post them to their page as a representation of who they are and what they want people to see. It is an interesting form of control and, in a way, self-preservation. However, there is a strong likelihood that many people who don’t know you will see this photo representation and make passing judgments as to who you may or may not be, much in the same way we make passing judgments on people we see in our neighborhoods every day. Take a collection of these portraits and put them into the context of a gallery space or like setting, and you see a community of individuals – their likeness elevated and memorialized like the original commissioners of portrait painting; the rich and powerful – displayed as a portrait’s original intent: expression of an individuals’ character and moral quality.”

A few months into the project and with over 3,500 profile photos submitted for his consideration, I was curious to hear his observations from his work.Here’s our chat, carried out via Facebook of course.

Amanda: So first, when and why did you decide to start working on this project?
Matt: This project started, really, over Thanksgiving weekend 2008. I had been trying to work through this horrendous painters block and decided to paint a photo of my wife that she had on her Facebook profile – angry faced, disheveled hair, finger waging war at the iPhoto camera. Call it luck, call it a breakthrough – I don’t know, but something clicked and I started rummaging through my friends profiles looking for others to paint. It’s fairly apparent that most people put a decent amount of effort to find good photos that represent their “self” and I started thinking about the implications of that in the context of classic portraiture. I think I had finished a large handful of paintings of our friends before my wife suggested putting up the group as a way socialize the idea and get beyond our immediate connections.

Amanda: Why Facebook? Why not MySpace or any other social network?
Matt: I don’t have a MySpace account, and it took a while before my wife convinced me to join Facebook. It’s not that I was anti-social media, I just thought it to be a waste of time. Of course, I geeked out on it for a while after joining, the games, the videos, chatting. However, it very quickly became clear that this is a perfect platform for an artist with a project such as this that involves crowd-sourcing and image-sourcing. In the first few weeks of the project, before the group went up, we went through the images of friends on my wife’s MySpace account in the same way we were using Facebook. But after the group went up, it’s become exclusively FB. I’ve had people suggest I take a look at their photos on MySpace and I just don’t have the time to toggle between the two or any other social network for that matter.

Amanda: What’s your criteria for selecting a profile photo to paint?
Matt: I have some loose criteria. I like quirky photos, color (no b/w), just the individual – no kids, no dogs, no significant other, no famous people, maybe a prop or something to add to the story. It has to be clear, and a good size as I enlarge the photo to grab detail. I don’t like super posed shots and I don’t paint photos that are clearly done for professional purposes (i.e. modeling, acting, etc). I can’t say exactly what makes a photo jump at me, but if you look through the gallery of ones that have been painted you’ll get a pretty good idea.

Amanda: You’ve already produced and posted several portraits. What are some interesting observations you’ve had about how people represent themselves here on Facebook? Are there any shared characteristics or particularly compelling individual stories you’ve found along the way?
Matt: I believe people choose photos they think are an accurate measure of their ‘self’. Most of these people I’ve never met, but once I decide on a picture I want to paint, I’ll rummage around their profile trying to ascertain who they are, what they are like – how their nose looks in different angles. A photograph can capture so many different things in lighting and color and contrasts – that by the time I am finished with the painting and then meet the person, the portrait may or may not look like the human person it’s concerned with.

For the most part, so far, all subjects are very vast and different. Although most share some common traits in that they are drawn to art and technology.

Amanda: What are some of your favorite portraits you’ve captured so far?
Matt: It’s tough to say what my favorite’s are, but a few that I am fond of ‘Jillian’, ‘Jessica’, ‘Angie’, ‘Heidi’, ‘Jason’, ‘Jordy’, “Ardalan’, ‘Bobby’…it changes. My wife’s of course!


Amanda: What has the reaction been like from the people you’ve painted in this project?
Matt: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Only one person didn’t respond. It’s crazy – 6 months ago I couldn’t give my paintings away and now I can’t get into the studio enough to meet the demand. It’s a good thing. There have been a few critical mentions in comments of others’ paintings, but they are typically from other artists and we are the worst critics of each other so I expect that a bit.

Amanda: Ultimately, what do you hope the outcome of this is?
Matt: Ultimately, I would like to finish the 200 portraits and see them all in a show together at the end of the project and a few smaller shows along the way. Portraiture kind of fell off the map of relevancy in the art world and I’d certainly like to see it front and center again.

If you’d like to participate in this project and submit your own profile photo for consideration, you can join the Facebook group and add Matt Held as a friend.

Main image of Matt Held borrowed from his Facebook profile, courtesy of An Xiao and additional images from theMatt Held Studios Web site.

-Amanda Mooney


One Response to “Turning Our Facebook Photos Into Gallery-Worthy Portraiture”

  1. Amanda-

    How people represent themselves online is an area of study in the social sciences that will surely get more attention in the years to come. Matt is taking the Facebook user’s online self and making it into a piece of art. His work shows the power of the web in representing our personalities– and better yet, how we can shape those representations.

    Fantastic project and interview. Really enjoyed learning something new.

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