Self Composed: Rethinking the Selfie at the SFMOMA

When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopens on May 14 after an extreme three-year makeover, visitors will find a deeper focus on photography. In fact, the museum has dedicated more gallery space to photography than any other museum in the U.S.

You might be aware that we know a bit about photography, so when the SFMOMA tapped us to help with a new exhibit we were thrilled to get involved. The result: Self Composed, a hands-on exhibit in the Photography Interpretive Gallery that’s designed to make visitors reconsider the ubiquitous selfie.

“SFMOMA wanted to create a unique, interactive experience for visitors,” said Sam Wick, Senior Experience Designer Lead.  “They recognized the importance of hands-on experimentation, and Self Composed accomplishes that in a thought-provoking way.”

The experience is somewhat like taking a spin in a photo booth, but with a twist. Self Composed invites visitors to arrange personal objects—things they carried with them in their pockets or purse—onto a glass table. The objects create a “window” which reveals a visitor’s image, as seen through the shape of their belongings. Visitors receive a print of their portrait and can find it online, where they can repost with the hashtag #SelfComposed. The museum plans to display a curated collection of the images in Schwab Hall. Imagine that – your artwork could be on display at a world-class museum!

The interaction is hands-on and fun, but it’s also designed to get museum visitors thinking. It all started when the SFMOMA challenged the Adobe Design team to turn selfie culture on its head, and nudge people into an exploration of their roles as creators. Will Ruby, the Experience Designer who built the early prototypes, explains: “We wanted to get people to think more critically about image making; to consider that what you make, you make on purpose.”

Developing Self Composed

Our volunteers worked on the exhibit for a year and a half, contributing nearly 1,000 hours to the project, from conception all the way through development. But it was all a labor of love. “Working on pro bono projects is an important part of the culture at Adobe,” explains Sonja Hernandez, Experience Design Manager. “We contributed many hours and our own personal time because this is an institution we care about. It was very fulfilling.”

To start, the team toyed around with some photography basics and got inspired by photograms—they’re the shadow images you can make if you place objects on a light-sensitive material. You might have made them when you were a kid by putting leaves and flowers on sun paper and leaving them out until the silhouettes appeared. The team realized that arranging a selfie through a photogram could give people an interesting way to compose an image.

“The act of creating a composition with the objects you carry around with you every day, and revealing your portrait through them, personalizes and adds a unique narrative to the photograph. It becomes much more than a straightforward selfie,” explains Sonja.

As the concept came together, the team moved to Photoshop to play with brightness and contrast and to figure out how the two layers (selfie and photogram) could work together. Once they’d this sorted out, they tackled the challenge of building the exhibit.

Cameras proved especially tricky: “We needed just the right equipment in order to not have the exhibit burn down or the equipment explode,” chuckles Will. Then came the challenge of synchronizing all the parts, from the cameras to digitally compositing the images to printing them, and then creating a unique URL for each user. That meant creating a custom app.

The final product achieves the critical balance for an interactive museum piece: it’s visually intriguing, sturdy enough to withstand constant use, and simple enough for users to grasp quickly—the interface is a single button.

Taking It Public

Journalists and museum members have had a sneak peek of Self Composed, and they’re excited. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it, and Curbed listed Self Composed as one of the top 10 things not to miss at the new SFMOMA. Users have posted enthusiastically on Instagram and Twitter.

After all the hard work, now comes the fun part. Sonja mused at people’s reactions to Self Composed for the first time: “When they place the objects on the table, visitors get that reveal of themselves,” she says. “There’s always this ah-ha moment when the user realizes that what they’re seeing on the screen is actually themselves. Everyone’s face changes immediately when they see that. Seeing that point of discovery is really meaningful.”

For Will, the exhibit is an extension of what he loves most about his work. “We make tools that enable other people to make things. And that is the joy of the exhibit so far. When people come up with something I haven’t thought of, I think ‘Yeah! That’s what I wanted to see!’ We’re enabling people to do a cool, exotic thing they can’t do easily anywhere else.”

Special thanks to all the volunteers who helped with this exhibit, but didn’t appear in this story: Lisa Pedee, Sean Voisen, Ben Farrell, Ming-En Cho, and Erik Natzke.