This is a story I wrote in April 2010 for a Columbia class on arts reporting. I had to do a profile of a digital artist, and I chose Noah Kalina. Because the story doesn’t really involve anything newsy, I didn’t try publishing it anywhere serious. But through interviewing Kalina and checking out his stuff, I became very interested in his work. Sharing the piece here for fun.
Noah Kalina is YouTube’s Walt Whitman, and “Everyday,” the video that has made him famous, is his “Song of Myself.”
Kalina was only 19 on January 11, 2000, when he began taking his own photograph every day. [Author’s note in 2013, in hindsight: bear in mind that this was long before the now ubiquitous idea of the “selfie!”] The daily self-portraiture is a process that he still continues. “There is no end,” Kalina says, now ten years into the project. “It just is.”
On August 27, 2006, Kalina posted the images he had thus far on YouTube under the title “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years.” The reel shows 2,356 photos—a photo a day for over six and a half years—flashing by at the speed of six photos per second. To date, the video has been viewed 14.6 million times. It also made it onto Time‘s recent “50 Best YouTube Videos” list in honor of the video site’s fifth anniversary.
In 2010, web art is truly experiencing its moment, and the influence that Kalina’s photo/video hybrid has had is now more obvious than before, as numerous imitations and similar projects have surfaced, bearing Kalina’s influence all over them.
It isn’t merely that by combining photo and video, using simple software to present the images in hi-speed, and making it instantly available to millions of content-hungry YouTubers, Kalina deftly tackled distribution, combination, and manipulation. (Jonathan Lipkin, a digital media professor at Ramapo University, calls these “the hallmarks of the new age of digital imagery.”) Nor is the video’s success just due to the fact that Kalina has a soft, easy face and large, sad eyes (he jokes: “I have a perfectly average kind of face; I’m not ugly enough to offend, but not good-looking enough to alienate”). It also helps that the video runs with a haunting, lovely piano score created by Carly Comando, who was Kalina’s girlfriend at the time, but that isn’t the heart of the video’s power either.
What has had the largest role in making the video a success might be something more ephemeral, less often discussed: its celebration of the self. “Everyday” captures something about the Internet that by now is old news, though Internet lovers remain loathe to admit it: the Web, and all of its many sub-realms (including YouTube and the entire blogosphere), exists for self-promotion. Even social media sites that purport to foster communities are more commonly used to announce the individual’s presence and particular brand of self-designed appeal.
With “Everyday,” Kalina shouts in a very public way, “Look at me. Here I am. This is my face. This was six years in my life. Check me out.” From highly critical art snobs down to average, bored YouTube users, everyone who consumes the video can see this. And Kalina’s announcement, his own “song,” means something to them.
Through its celebration of the individual, “Everyday” also enacts a greater sadness and beauty. The viewer watches Kalina age. His eyes sink a bit. Lines on his face deepen. One cannot help but think of death.
Kalina became a sort of small-time celebrity as a result of the project, and in late 2007, the VH1 network asked him to recreate his project with real celebrities, setting up photographs in which he makes the same deadpan expression while people like Hulk Hogan, Paris Hilton, and David Hasselhoff flamboyantly pose next to him. The network aired these photographs during commercial breaks in an end-of-the-year retrospective program, and they now exist as the photo series “everyday/celebrity” on Kalina’s Flickr page. During the VH1 special, the photos ran without any explanation whatsoever of the project or Kalina himself.
The VH1 project carries on the Whitmanesque theme of “Everday,” even if inadvertently. The photographs display a “regular guy” sitting with larger-than-life celebrities. Again, the message seems to be: “Look at me!”
Kalina claims that he did not believe he was creating something so grand—he hoped his video would have a major effect, but didn’t allow himself to really expect it. When asked whether he intended the video to be “art” in the highest sense, or merely an experiment, something more casual and calamitous, he counters: “The question is, does it matter?” He qualifies this, though: “I think that it actually does, when it comes to art-making. Having the intent. And I believe I am making art every time I take a picture of myself.” This attitude speaks volumes about how photographers consider their form, and, as a result, how audiences and critics receive the final product.
In the current realm, being an “artist” has a new meaning. Earning the title takes, in some cases, little effort. “Everyday” is a fine example; the entire video took Kalina just four hours to make. Apart from six years of self-portraits—a disciplined, if not difficult undertaking—there was no work at all.
Yet once Kalina dumped the whole thing on YouTube, thousands of people had seen it in less time than it took him to produce. That soon became hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions, all of them mesmerized by what they were seeing: just a guy from Williamsburg, announcing, after six years, “This is me.”