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Selfie Absorbed

The rise of the influencer and the evolution of commercial photography

By Jonathan WarrenPublished 5 months ago 8 min read
Selfie wall at Resorts World where guests pose as if they are in the popular ad photo

Meg was a beautiful grad student, about a year older than me. We were laying on the floor of her dorm room at Columbia University. She rolled toward me and we kissed. With my free hand, I took a selfie at the perfect moment. The photo looked as if someone else snapped it.

"I'm the master of the self portrait." I told her. It was 1985, long before the term "selfie" existed. For years I had turned disposable cameras toward me and friends, to take blind photos. I had entire printed collections of them back then, in the pre-digital camera age. It was a funny gimmick I had mastered.

I had no idea that the practice would become so much more than a novelty. Now, most photos of individuals are selfies, and some of the biggest companies in the world garner massive market capitalization primarily by publishing exactly those photos. Yes, most are ridiculous, unintentional commentaries on how self-absorbed western culture has become. But to write it off as nothing more is folly.

The Advent of the Selfie Stick

A fair number of celebrities attended the opening of Liberace Garage in Las Vegas in 2016. I wasn't surprised to see Pia Zadora, fresh off the microphone at Piero's where she was holding down her showroom then. Pia is a veteran actress and entertainer with a long history in Las Vegas, including ownership of the Riviera Hotel at one point.

The thing that was surprising was to see her with a selfie stick, which held a camera at a distance so that she could photograph herself. Selfie sticks were normally the domain of tourists and teenagers. Pia explained that she had learned her lesson years ago, and no longer allowed anyone else take the photos she used in her promotions and marketing as an entertainer. This made such instant sense to me that I wondered why I hadn't realized it earlier.

Photographers own the photos they take, unless they are demonstrably hired to shoot them as the property of someone else, in which case they belong to the hiring party. Any use of a photo in the future generally has to have the permission, and therefore meet the conditions, of the photographer. So having a friend take photos of you at some event can become problematic if there is a market for the photo, which in the case of celebrities is always the case. This is the lesson to which Pia Zadora was referring.

By taking her own photos, she completely controlled their use. Her heirs would control them after she's gone. Having anyone else take the shots leaves the door open to fights over ownership and licensing. Pia, I realized, was on the right track. She didn't give a damn what anyone thought of her selfie stick, and she was right. Associated most with vanity and the "look at me" aspects of Millennial and Gen Z antics, the use actually has tremendous legal implications affecting licensing and production.

Newspapers no longer have readers, with over 300 newspapers closing in 2020 alone. Similar fates have befallen nonfiction books and even magazines. All are outmoded in the convenience world, as a means of delivering information and telling stories. Even those of us who still love the feel of a physical book, and enjoy reading, seldom receive much information via the legacy printed means.

Digital text is no more impressive, however. A major online book app recently revealed that the average reader of a typical best seller only gets to page 16. Anyone publishing text to the web can tell you that statistically no one reads anything beyond the first two sentences. Instagram could be called a Facebook with fewer features, but its photo and video focus makes it more popular. The ease of video upload, and even simpler publication platform, is taking video social network TikTok to the fast lane, passing Instagram. Youtube, making adjustments to it's legacy video model, is outrunning them all.

Suddenly, video has become everything. From the streaming series, to feature length films, to the 30 second clips on Instagram or TikTok, audio-visual is all most of us make time for.

The Rise of the Influencer

As the social networks have evolved, we have seen the rise of the "influencer," taking marketing in an entirely new direction. At first it seemed to me like nothing more than meaningless followers and narcissism. Just because someone has a lot of followers on social networks doesn't necessarily mean they are influential on those followers, after all. But I later learned there is so much more to the phenomenon.

The influencers who have established consistent success are focused and well-informed on their published topic, whatever that might be, and have invested in inexpensive production equipment and software that was unimaginable even a few years ago. Recently I was accompanying a vendor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as they hosted many members of the technology press, and influencers as well, to demonstrate their tech product. I quickly realized the members of the press were not very engaged, had done no preparation, were sloppy in production, had little or no consumer perspective, and were hypercritical of things that didn't matter in the marketplace. The influencers, on the other hand, were engaged, well studied, understood completely the product and its potential market, asked intelligent questions and put tremendous effort into production values of what they were reporting to their followers. The company quickly realized that the influencers were where the money is, and so did I.

Nobody is an expert in everything, but suddenly everyone has all sorts of expertise on tap. Nobody is more likely than another influencer to tune in to another influencer teaching a hack or reviewing a new product type on YouTube. That's because it works.

The ease of recording due to standardized, sophisticated software, inexpensive and advanced hardware, and mass viewership by the general public, has made video the primary medium. It is inexpensive, universal, fast, easy. It is how we learn, how we tell stories, how we relate experiences, how we record history.

Introduction of the Selfie Museum and Influencer Studios

Tourists flock to Las Vegas, one of the most photo op'd places on the planet. They crush into famous vista sites to get the coveted image in front of a given landmark or doing something typically "Vegas."

With over 10,000 weddings per month, Las Vegas chapels see quick ceremonies, followed by much photography. Classic car rentals by wedding parties see a few minutes of transportation, followed by hours of photo ops of the bride and groom, and even more selfies. Influencers follow similar routes through the Strip.

In recent years, it has been discovered that being both the photographer and the subject can be extremely dangerous. Many are the injuries and deaths of those who fall victim to accidents while posing for photos, whether by losing equilibrium on a high vista, not noticing approaching danger, or other miscalculations associated with the dual roles. The phenomenon has even led to bans of selfie sticks and similar equipment.

These and other hazards of the practice of self-photography have led to the rise of another industry which seemed odd initially: The selfie museum. These are generally ticketed, indoor, safe and comfortable locations with easy-to-use dedicated props and scenes for shooting selfies and the like.

One might ask, why would someone go to a museum with props representing the very same tourism attractions that are real outside? The answer is three fold: Volume, safety, and intellecual property. Inside a safe area with related props, an influencer can fill in the gaps between landmarks or points of interest photographed, without accidentally filming someone who doesn't want to be on camera, offending security somewhere, or accidentally capturing, and broadcasting for profit, protected intellectual property. For industry influencers, what used to be press clubs are now selfie museums, at least to some degree.

The Next Thing

The chief complaint about selfie museums is that they are, quite notoriously, artificial. They often have vignettes set up with nothing more than a piece of furniture and a colorful backdrop, or a gag backdrop in paint that looks three dimensional.

The Liberace Foundation may be on the trail of the next development in the business. At Liberace Garage in Las Vegas, the Foundation has exhibited Liberace's amazing stage cars since 2016. Influencers there have at times been a problem in the past, with unauthorized filming and some even claiming to own the licensing rights to the artifact cars of Liberace. The Foundation disallowed filming in response to this, and the often oblivious disposition of the influencers filming. But now they are taking a different approach, and leaning in, to fully encourage filming and photography.

By adding another 5,000 square feet to the initial space where the cars are exhibited, Backstage at Liberace Garage will soon house other classic limousines which are normally for rent to the public, along with other large scale artifacts not likely to be harmed by hands-on photography. Instead of an influencer having only generic props in the backdrops of vignettes, Backstage has real, classic limousines from the 1960's and 1970's, motorcycles, and real Las Vegas stage show props, all set up for a guest to actually sit in, sit on, or otherwise interact with. The authenticity and uniqueness are accompanied by production equipment included for use, photogenic lounge areas, props such as faux fur coats and jewels, available refreshments, and dedicated booking time availability at a fraction of the price of a normal photo studio.

Classics for rent or photo ops, from Liberace Garage

The space is also utilized for shows and events, making it less expensive for the museum patron who wants to shoot some unique photos, as well as adding to the cache with fairly routine celebrity visits to the location. Backstage at Liberace Garage is set to bring a unique, contextualized and exciting backdrop to visiting and resident influencers, celebrities and tourists alike, without sacrificing safety or risking intellectual or personal property infringements, all for the price of a typical museum ticket.

travel photographyvintagepop culturefemale travelcouples travelbudget travelactivities

About the Creator

Jonathan Warren

Honorary Consul of Monaco, Chairman of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, 50 years in Vegas, Citizen of the world.


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