A Brief History of Selfies

When Oxford Dictionary Online recently added the word “selfie” to their database, I felt compelled to take a moment and reflect upon how far the humble “selfie” has come.

“Selfies” have been popularized as of late by smartphone camera technology and how it allows us to take annoying, indulgent, arm-length self-portraits in an instance, creating (among other affronts against humanity) the “duckface” meme.

This hilarious GIF courtesy of Know Your Meme.
I can’t . . . look . . . away . . .

But “selfies” weren’t always obnoxious manifestations of our inherent narcissism, or at the very least our pathological egocentricity. No! Well, maybe they were. But at one point in human history, “selfies” were called “self-portraits,” and they were actually very cool artful self-representations that took time and effort to make.

According to Wikipedia, the first known selfie was painted by a man named Jan van Eyck in 1433. Titled Portrait of a Man in a Turbanvan Eyck veers dangerously close to “duckface” territory even in this early example, but the effort it took to create this historical duckfaced selfie at least demands respect and admiration.

"Portrait of a Man in a Turban" by Jan "Duckface" van Eyck
“Portrait of a Man in a Turban” by Jan “Duckface” van Eyck

An interesting thing to note about self-portraits is that, with the advent of cheaper mirrors, self-portraits became much more prevalent in the 17th century. In that way, technology was already making our ability to capture our own images easier, more affordable, and therefore more accessible, and in some cases more meta, like this self-portrait by Johannes Gumpp, which shows how a self-portrait was traditionally painted:

Johannes Gump, so meta.
Johannes Gump, so meta.

Of course one of the most prolific self-portraitists was Vincent Van Gogh, who painted his own image a whopping 37 times. What’s striking about Van Gogh’s self-portraits is how similar yet how different they all are, especially considering he completed them all within a 3 year period or so.

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Winter 1886
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Winter 1886
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887
Van Gogh, Self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin, September 1888
Van Gogh, Self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin, September 1888
Van Gogh, Self-portrait without beard, September 1889
Van Gogh, Self-portrait without beard, September 1889

The stylistic differences, seen in sequence, are even more striking. Consider the difference between these self-portraits and those of Instagram user @mrpimpgoodgame.

Dude really likes selfies.
Dude really likes selfies.

But really, why are self-portraits from the likes of Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo so much less annoying than contemporary selfies?

Part of this phenomenon, I think, can be attributed to the effort required to paint a self-portrait. Besides the actual technical skill it takes to paint anything, an artist needs to conceptualize a vision of his- or herself and then execute that vision. All a selfie requires is enough room to reach your arm out, or a mirror to stand in front of, as exemplified by Geraldo Rivera:

WHAT HAS BEEN SEEN, etc.
WHAT HAS BEEN SEEN, etc.

Another thing that makes selfies so much more annoying than self-portraits is the “show-off” nature of selfies. Take, for example, this selfie by astronaut Akihiko Hoshide:

Yeah, we get it, Hoshide-san. You're in space. Big whoop.
Yeah, we get it, Hoshide-san. You’re in space. Big whoop.

The hilarious fledgling blog Selfies At Serious Places shows where you can cross the line between braggadocio and just plain braggadumb. (This is probably the same reason I find Instagram food photos so annoying.)

Or what about the fact that selfies are just screaming for attention? Not only that, but it’s become acceptable to scream for attention. Whether it’s affirmation or reassurance, selfies seem to be less about expressing oneself and more about telling the world you’re here, even though no one really cares.

But mostly what makes selfies so much more insufferable than self-portraits is that, as the great Benjamin Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility to not take photos that make you look dumb.” Why are we polluting the internet and everyone’s Facebook feeds with pictures of ourselves? When we’re out, shouldn’t we turn the camera around and simply capture the moment? Or, hey, how about exercising a little mindfulness and being present in the moment? Do people do that anymore? (I’m seriously asking.)

But let’s not outright denigrate the art of the self-portrait. It’s still alive and well. Check out the effort and artistry our friend Kevin Deskins put into his most recent self-portrait:

Kevin Deskins, circa 2013
Kevin Deskins, circa 2013

Or what about Noah Kalina‘s Everydayan ongoing project in which Kalina, a professional photographer, has taken a pretty standard selfie every day . . . for twelve freaking years (so far!).

What’s amazing about this series is how Kalina elevates the form of the selfie, tracking himself for so long that it makes us reflect upon aging, time, and the things that can happen in a person’s life over the course of twelve years.

Heck, even your faithful Photo Frosh took on a self-portrait challenge, and I have to say I put some effort into it and was happy with the results.

Photo Frosh Challenge #1
Photo Frosh Challenge #1

So let’s not dismiss selfies outright, I say. Let’s just put some gosh darn backbone into it. Take a self-portrait, send it to michael@mpex.com, and I will feature it on our blog!

Midwest Photo

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