Showing oneself in the best light has, throughout history, been a matter of incremental improvements: a tactically cocked head, artfully applied mascara, the avoidance of Lycra. The rise of social media has presented both a problem and an opportunity. Portraits of oneself may proliferate beyond one’s control but the tools to modify them have never been more readily available. You can be whomever you wish to be, unconstrained by time or nature. Want to know what you would look like as a crone or a codger? Unhaggarded by age? If your permanently pursed lips retained the muscle memory to crank out a smile? Now you can, thanks to Face App, the latest excuse to spend more time with your smartphone.
The app was launched earlier this year and immediately went viral thanks to three fundamental human impulses: to turn back the clock, to foretell the future and to learn, once and for all, whether, if you’d been born with the opposite gender, your current self would make a move. Unlike cruder apps, which apply filters or overlays for their effects, Face App boasts the latest AI clobber – a neural network – that will manipulate your features more subtly. Face App’s capacity to engineer a smile is particularly useful for glower-pusses like myself who are incapable of smiling on demand. When I try, it appears that some malevolent dwarf is lurking behind my back, yanking a pair of drawstrings that are winching up the corners of my mouth. Face App offers two smile options: a snaggle-toothed one (for dentally honest users) and an ice-white, perfectly aligned set (presumably for Americans). The enigma of the Mona Lisa can be solved at the tap of a button. The other transformations are more erratic. I was pleased to know that when I’m decrepit, I’ll look like a saggy and scuzzy veteran of the Great Train Robbery; I was intrigued to discover that my youthful self was mixed race. And this neural network must be highly imaginative since, were I a woman, my barren pate would be crowned by auburn locks.
Face App’s popularity pales in comparison with the two major social networks navigated by photographs: Instagram, where brunch and beaches and yoga poses that appear to require multiple dislocations extend beyond sight; and Snapchat, the photo-messaging app where you can jazz up your selfie with a slavering dog’s head or a coronet of butterflies. Like Face App, they tap atavistic currents in Western civilisation, which were first explicated by Friedrich Nietzsche in “The Birth of Tragedy”. On one side he places the Apollonian, the principle of order, structure and clarity. You can see it in the hours of preparation Instagram professionals spend on the perfectly composed shot, and in the homogenising lustre of its filters, which lend a golden, sepia or oversaturated momentousness to the most insignificant of encounters. The Apollonian celebration of shapeliness is manifested in the platform’s most recognisable clichés: the body tensed in a downward dog or the crisp, Cycladic contrast of bright sand against deep-blue horizon.
The Dionysian principle encapsulated the opposite – all riotous, rapturous and unfettered human instincts. Flick through Snapchat’s lenses – the one which wreathes flowers in your hair, the one that turns you into a fawn, the one that squashes your face into a satyr’s grimace – and you’ve got all the ingredients for a Bacchic orgy. Nietzsche believed that the great Greek tragedies held these two forces in precarious tension. With your smartphone, you can show the world Apollonian sincerity, while getting all Dionysian with your friends.
Prisma aims to go one step further, turning you into an oil painting – literally. A number of its filters seek to emulate the work of specific artists. “Roy” will fill in select passages with Lichtenstein’s fleshy pointillism. I had hoped that “The Scream” would reveal the yowl of existential anguish in my soul as I leaned over my birthday cake to blow out the candle; instead it turned me a Trumpian shade of carrot. Most of the filters take the lurid, heavy-limned approach favoured by piazza artists up and down Europe. Playing around with Prisma, I realised what we really need are a set of filters that capture the essence of the artist, not merely the superficies of colour and pattern: an El Greco filter that will turn me gaunt and prophetic; a Picasso filter that will rearrange my face.
While there are numerous apps available which will enhance and beautify your photographs, Glitché provides a multiplicity of ways to distort, degrade and disrupt them. Ever wanted to find out what happens if your ear became liquid and flowed round to meet your jaw? Or your features were rendered in thousands of emojis? Now you can. VHS mode, in which crackles of interference vibrate over the image, is perfect for discovering what you’d look like in a hostage video. I have seen fear in a handful of pixels.