The Art of the Headshot

As I navigate the web, both as an artist and a new media person, I think about the images we use to present ourselves. Other than movie stars and professional personalities such as Oprah and Martha, real estate agents were actually the first profession to use headshots as one of the means of conveying who they are and what they would be like to work with. In the marketing and advertising world they call it “branding”. But since that always makes me think of seared flesh on a cow’s ass I tend I stay away from that expression. Whatever you call it, we’re all doing it now.

Take my friend Sharona, for example. Occasionally I receive postcards or web announcements with her face smiling at me. She’s smart, confident and looks it. When I see her picture, I also instantly hear her signature sexy voice. I think to myself, “Man, if anyone is going find me a great house it’s going to be her.” As realtors go, she’s pretty low-key. (She also has the curious distinction of being the namesake of the Knack’s famous song “My Sharona” so she doesn’t have to sell as hard.) But most real estate agents take it much further, putting their faces on everything from billboards, bus stops and print ads. I often wonder when the trend started. It must have been in the seventies, and some blond babe, probably here in Los Angeles, an out-of-work actor, perhaps, thought “I bet if I put a picture of myself on every business card and bus stop, billboard and sign outside the house, people would rather buy a house from me.”

2009-04-13-bijan.jpgSpecial attention must be given to “Bijan”. There’s a corner on Sepulveda and Wilshire Blvds. in Los Angeles where he’s always there spread across two billboards of this major intersection. His face and image are in every picture, always laughing and getting out of a yellow Ferrari or private airplane with his name slathered on it. It’s fabulously ostentatious and not to be missed.
So what is the significance of that single image that you project and how everyone perceives you? When I was college intern working in an international design firm (pre-web), I saw a lot of resumes coming in from around the world. Unlike the American applicants who just submitted resumes, the designers from Europe affixed a passport photo size headshot on the corner. It stunned me how much the picture overrode any impression you could have of how they had spent their entire professional career. The impact on the mostly men who did the hiring was equally poignant. A pretty girl? Who cares where she went to school? Now we all confront it all the time, whether we read the blogs here on Huffpo or whether surveying friends of friends on Facebook.

Whether an activist, writer, blogger, student or artist, everyone is now a real estate agent. Once we admit or embrace this idea, let us examine a couple rules, shall we?

Activists Probably Shouldn’t be Smiling and Baring Teeth.
If your goal in life is to be helpful, like, say, for a real estate agent, smile away. But I’ve always found something a bit aggressive about baring teeth and looking straight into the camera. It must stem from primitive days one animal signaled another not encroach on his meal. Once, an environmental activist friend of mine used a smiling headshot but all words she was writing were “Hey, the Earth is On Fire and We Gotta Do Something About it!” It was a disconnect and when I pointed it out she changed it.

2009-04-13-MaureenDowd.jpgSerious Writers Ought To Go Easy on the Smiling too.
For years when I read the New York Times, I never knew what Maureen Dowd looked like. Suddenly, on the web her picture appeared. At first she looked like how I expected her to look. For a while however, the photographer made her smile and when I read her column on the web it annoyed me. Now her picture looks like wry and witty like her writing again. I can’t imagine reading Virginia Wolfe’s To The Lighthouse and have her smiling at me either.

The Artist’s Image
When I think of Picasso, I think of this black and white photo below. It captures the intensity of his gaze and something even deeper.

The artist’s image is intrinsically linked to portraiture. Before photography, the image of the artist was usually a self-portrait and hence in a state of scrutinization ~ a portrait of the artist staring at their reflection in order to depict his own image. Like this one of Albrecht Durer. My initial self portraits are equally intense.

2009-04-13-durerbrooks.jpgAlbrecht Durer, Kimberly Brooks (Self Portraits)

So then, what kind of image should an artist put out there? Let’s take out the teeth entirely. Artists shouldn’t be smiling, they should be suffering, no? I was recently selected in a juried exhibition in print called New American Paintings which required each artist to submit a picture. When the book came out, most of them were brooding and or looking away. Choosing a picture isn’t easy. I blame modern photography on the frustration– its shutter speed can capture an infinite array of nano emotions but then somehow miss a larger essence.

The Scientist’s Image

My favorite scientist’s image is this one of Einstein, hair messy, sticking his tongue out. He looks perfectly wacky enough to think of something as out of the box and crazy the Theory of Relativity. My brother-in-law Ken Goldberg is an artist and Robotics Professor at UC Berkeley. His Facebook portrait (below, right) is waiting-for-the-explosion wacky. Now he’s blogging for the San Francisco Chronicle and uses the picture on the left.

Ken Goldberg, Scientist, Artist, SFGate BloggerFor some reason, bloggers like to show a happy version of themselves. Even I did it on this post. But is that the real me? I dunno, sometimes maybe. It will never be the right picture. As I tunnel through this thought experiment, I’m still figuring out the other professions. I’d love to know what you think.

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Michelle Obama, Master Colorist and Me

There is a riot of color issuing forth from the First Lady’s closet and I cannot wait to see what she wears next. Say what you will about whether or not it was “appropriate” to wear a cardigan to meet the Queen or whether that balloon skirt was flattering, Michelle Obama is a Master Colorist — and I as well as my artist friends could not be more ecstatic.

A Collage of Michelle Recent Outfits
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Rebecca Bird Paints the Explosion

I walk into Paul Kopeikin’s new gallery in West Hollywood and what do I see? I see the fantasies (realities?) of Iran and North Korea. I see Alan Greenspan’s testimony that he found a “a flaw in the model … that defines how the world works.” I see the value of my pension plan. I see the image everywhere I go, reflected in everyone’s shiny pupils. It’s as if it’s coming from inside them. I see the paintings of Rebecca Bird.


Rebecca Bird, Untitled, watercolor on paper: 12″ x 12″, Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

In her current show, “Everything that Ever Existed Still Exists,” Bird delicately — even preciously — petrifies images of infamous nuclear explosions in paint. The names of the locations are erased, leaving the images just as anonymous as those civilian victims of the bombs or testing sites. While some of the clouds are recognizable, Bird’s interpretation of these events captures peacefulness and tragedy, past and present, personal and global, all at once. The show, curated by Fette, one of my favorite art bloggers, runs through April 18, 2009.
Rebecca Bird, Tree, watercolor on paper, Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kimberly Brooks: Aside from picking up any newspaper lately, what was the inspiration behind this body of work?

Rebecca Bird: The impetus for my work usually comes from seeing something surprising, which leads to an inquiry. In this case the moment of surprise happened at New York Public Library picture collection, where I found a group of government photos from the National Archive of nuclear bomb tests.


From the national archive of nuclear bomb tests.

At the time, I was trying to create a visual representation of what an internalized trauma might look like, something hard to explain to anyone who hadn’t experienced it. I was looking for imagery that was violent or explosive. I had started working with the subject of explosions very generally. When I first saw these photographs of nuclear bomb tests I realized they had the same barriers to comprehension as any violent event seen from the outside. I felt like I was both the person who is unable to convey their own subjective experience, and the person who can’t understand it based on what they see.

Rebecca Bird, Small Problems Obscuring Big Problems, 2006, watercolor on paper, 26 1/2″ x 39″
Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

KB: I’ve always found the images eerily beautiful too. Where does the title of the show, “Everything That Ever Existed Still Exists,” come from?

RB: There are two strains of content in the work, one which is about pain on a personal level, and one that is about tragic historic events. Using nuclear explosions as a metaphor for any smaller event is inherently out of proportion, but the lack of proportion is in turn a perfect metaphor for an event which ultimately cannot be measured or communicated. The removal of any indicators of scale or context from the images is important for this reason; the images could be enormous, or microscopic, or happening inside of you.

Everything about how these pictures are painted emphasizes the distance between seeing the images and understanding what they are of; they are hugely destructive explosions, but rendered in precise watercolor. The cool, watery pastel colors are beautiful or nostalgic, and the images are above all very still. It suggests that something can happen very quickly and yet happen forever.

Rebecca Bird, Omega, 2005, watercolor on paper, 38″ x 50″, Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

KB: The work looks very layered and detailed. Describe your process of working.

RB: I work very close to the subject that I am painting, often with the object I am painting resting on the page as I work. I start from one end and go to the other, I put in one detail at a time: this means that I am never looking at the whole picture as I work, always at one tiny part of it. In these paintings I go through a process of examining every grain of the photograph without grasping the event pictured as a whole. There is something organic about the way the image grow on the page.

Rebecca Bird, P H, 2007, watercolor on paper, 30″ x 43 1/2″, Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

KB: Did you ever feel guilty about painting a devastating historical event in a way that is both beautiful and also personal?

RB: I am always confused when I see news photos of wars and disasters – does seeing a picture of a distant tragedy allow me to empathize with its victims, or does the shock actually numb my response? Given that these events are the sum of many smaller personal tragedies, is it even possible to empathize with every other person? You end up defining suffering in terms of numbers, and scale. Seeing includes a whole range of emotions including guilt. In the face of these events does any single person still matter, whether a victim or an observer?

In these paintings, I want to emphasize the distance between seeing and understanding. When using historical images — of the atomic cloud over Nagasaki or the attack on Pearl Harbor — the “name” of the event is not in the title, because giving something a name is another way of not going into the detail of what it means. There is no image that can lead to understanding.

KB: Is there a work of art that inspires you?

RB: This work was influenced by the use of explosions in movies and comic books to symbolize or simulate catharsis, particularly Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic manga and anime “Akira.” In “Akira,” the end of the known world is mirrored by, and brought about by, the gradual loss of sanity of a teenage boy. The gorgeous, monumental destruction of the climactic sequences are a perfectly overblown metaphor for self-absorbed pain.

Katsuhiro Otomo, from the comic book “Akira”, copyright Kodansha Ltd. Tokyo/ New York.

Rebecca Bird graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art in 2000. While a student she received the Ellen Battelle-Stoeckel Fellowship to the Yale Norfolk Summer School in painting. Immediately after graduating she was awarded a Fulbright to study traditional painting techniques in Kanazawa, Japan. She spent one year in Japan before settling in Brooklyn, NY. She has had work in solo and group shows in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Luzern, Kanazawa, and Beijing. Her solo exhibition “Everything that ever existed still exists” at Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles runs from March 14 – April 18, 2009.

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