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January 6, 2014

See me: The surprising history of the selfie

Amazingly Instagram’s 150 million users have taken 35 million posts containing the hashtag #selfie.

It’s no wonder then that there’s been a lot of talk recently about how self obsessed we’ve all become. Amazing smartphone camera technology, like that found on your Nokia Lumia, and social media sites have doubtlessly increased our ability to disseminate images of ourselves. But haven’t we humans always had a tendency to navel gaze?

2013 and the selfie

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word selfie first appeared in September 13, 2002 on the ABC online forum in Australia. However it seems Selfie first popped into the public consciousness way back in 2004 on the photo sharing site Flickr. But it took until 2012 before it really spread into a wider, generally used word.


2013 saw the Oxford English Dictionary vote ‘selfie’ as it’s Word of the Year. (‘Twerk’ and ‘Binge-Watching’ filling in the other top spots). Supposedly, use of the word selfie has increased 17,000% in a year! Now, whilst that sounds like an unfeasibly large number grabbed randomly out of thin air, apparently, the OED uses a research programme that collects 150 million words used in English texts from around the web each month. The software can then pinpoint the emergence of new words and their frequency of use.

However, not everyone was so pleased with such vocabulary; Time Magazine readers voted ‘selfie’ third in The Things You Never Want to Hear Again Poll.



Turning the easel on yourself

Whilst people have always made depictions of other people it probably wasn’t until the 15th century that the first true self-portrait was made. (Before this artists had often sneakily included themselves in the backgrounds of other paintings). Key to this was the development of better reflective surfaces and the availability of mirrors. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s ‘Portrait of a Man in a Turban’ (1433) is possibly one of the earliest examples of painted self-portraiture. Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) was well known for his self portraits, producing his first at the age of 13 and continuing to make representations of himself throughout his life.



But it is of course with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) that we think of the art of self-portraiture really appearing. Like Durer, Rembrandt repeatedly painted himself and showed the self portrait to be a worthy art form. Since then, nearly all painters have experimented with self-portraiture – even those whose ‘normal’ work is totally abstract.

Nokia Rembrandt selfies

The camera points at the photographer

It wasn’t until 1839 that the first photographic self-portrait appeared. Robert Cornelius (1809 – 1893), an American with a strong interest in chemistry and metallurgy, started out to perfect the art of Daguerreotype and ended up with a place in history as creating the first ever selfie.

first photo selfie RobertCornelius

As with painting, since that first selfie in 1839, photographers have often used themselves as subject matter for their photos. Famously, (from 1976 onwards) Cindy Sherman has used herself as the subject of nearly all of her work. In the seminal ‘Film Stills’ series (1977-1980) she depicted herself in a variety of roles and settings. Each single image alluded to a longer narrative and had the feel of 1950s American Film Noir cinema. All of the images remained ‘Untitled’ to avoid directing the viewer in their interpretation of the scene.





Celebrity selfies and faking history


Recent times have seen everyone from the Pope to the rulers of the world’s most powerful countries to astronauts taking selfies. (Or being photographed by others taking selfies). And such is the currency of selfies, that artists with a sense of humour have taken to making fake selfies out of other pictures.

So, while the selfie may seem like a very modern phenomenon it actually has a long and illustrious history. Questions is, does that make you love it any more or are you someone who’d rather not suffer a selfie? As ever, we’d love to know your thoughts down below.




Image credit: Sarah Van Quickelberge