Baby Pictor?

We have all experienced this situation with our smartphone: While opening the photo gallery or the camera, a photograph pops up that is not familiar to us. It may be blurred, or showing a strange detail from a peculiar angle: a pavement, a staircase – if the respective image is recognizable at all. But it can also be totally black, more like an Ad Reinhardt. The more frequently we are confronted with such images (even every day, depending on the time we spend on those devices), it becomes clear that the photographer could be the apparatus itself. It is activated by a particular trigger, e.g. on the iPhone, by touch or body contact (even by just being in someone’s pocket, for instance) and the camera, unintentionally set in motion through the highly sensitive surface of the smartphone, begins to take images. 

This case is especially relevant to babies that are growing up in this world of machines, even if most of the parents do their best to hide these smart high-tech instruments from them. Babies are somehow subconsciously, and almost from the beginning of their lives, captivated by them, not only because of their appearance and dazzling light, but also as objects that often attract much of their parents’ attention. In other words, the agency factor of these machines is striking. Babies do not know what those things actually are, not to mention their lack of knowledge of what those objects do and yet still they sometimes manage to get along with them better than many adults. 


Already between the eighth and the thirteenth month, babies rapidly start to develop their sensorimotor faculties, including the use of their digitus (, 16.10.2021). We know that toddlers, in an advanced development stage, are also able to unlock the phone by a simple movement, even if they do not necessarily know what they are doing. As the “Swissmom” blog informs us, there is a striking relation between eating porridge with the fingers and the way babies interact with a smartphone’s display. Let us not forget that eating and images are not merely a random comparison, as the works of artists such as Daniel Spoerri and art historians such as Carl Friedrich von Rumohr and his Geist der Kochkunst (1822) remind us.

But what exactly do we see here under this kind of bluish filter, which isn’t actually one, since the image was not manipulated (fig.1)? One half of a baby’s face is looking towards us: “Us” is, in this case, the machine itself that was already set in ‘selfie mode’. The image is taken by a non-human agent enabled though by a baby that literally played around with the device. It is, in other words, taken with a little help from the toddler. The light coming from outside offers a smooth and atmospheric blueish background. Windows are recognisable. We are clearly in an interior. In the lower part, a fragmented image within an image constellation appears with a human figure. The art historian, especially someone who is interested in iconology, would like to know what the image at hand depicts. The author happens to be familiar with the particular room and hence the respective image. It is a reproduction, much bigger than the original in the archaeological museum of Naples, of a fresco depicting Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring, with a greenish background, hence  also with a formal connection to our image at hand (fig.2): A figure against an abstract, rather atmospheric background. We cannot help but bring those two elements together (baby, flora) that in this sense have an immediate relationship to one another. It is about fertility and the circle of life in a picture created by someone who is just starting life. The image within the image is a metacommentary on this fact.

fig.2 Flora, 1st century AD, fresco, Naples, Archeological Museum. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Is this a digital image made by chance, or rather by mistake (Cf. Peter Geimer, Bilder aus Versehen. Eine Geschichte fotographischer Erscheinungen, Hamburg 2010)? But here, it is not the material of photography that takes up the action, but rather the apparatus itself, through its facilitation by the sensory sensitive baby fingers. Is the toddler the photographer, even if there is no intention, no conscious goal to take a selfie? Or is it an image made by chance by the non-human apparatus enabled by the toddler? As a result, this photograph is a kind of selfie (Wolfgang Ullrich, Selfies. Die Rückkehr des öffentlichen Lebens, Berlin 2019). However, there is not a clear intention behind the gesture, even if there are several such unintended images, that show our own face, especially by those who are not familiar with such technologies. It is also quite clear from the photograph that the baby did not center his face on the lens, meaning that there was no intention of posing (impossible anyway for such a young baby), but rather interacted with the device in general and then produced, more or less accidentally, an image.

The homo pictor (Gottfried Boehm ed., Homo Pictor, Munich 2001) does not know age limitations. We start already being one as a baby before even starting to draw (not to mention walking) and before consciously knowing what an image is or does (and as far as the ontological question goes, even adults do not know and they probably will never find out). This is a new case of image production that is only possible in the digital age. Remember the millions or even billions of analogue pictures that were produced till the end of the 20th century in a way that crafted or even constructed the first memories of children? But they were certainly not made by them, either intentionally nor unintentionally. Now, with the help of the apparatus, the babies themselves are the producers, even if not consciously activated. The last image someone produced by him or herself is almost a common place in photography. But how about the first image, especially when the producer is also the depicted person, a baby pictor par excellence who was not really aware of his own doing? 

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