Ah, the selfie. Is there anything more symbolic of our narcissistic, image-obsessed age than the pictures we take of ourselves? From the very first social networks to Instagram and Snapchat, the selfie craze has permeated our culture.
But if you think selfies are a purely modern invention/affliction, you’d be wrong.
From the very first glimpses of our reflections in pools of unmoving water to polished flat surfaces of obsidian, copper or bronze, we’ve been fascinated (and probably dissatisfied) with our physical appearance for thousands of years. Self-portraits in the form of painted vases and sculptures weren’t far off.
In Europe, glass mirrors became available as early as the 15th century and made self-portraiture significantly easier. Famous artists, like Dürer, Reubens and Rembrandt, created self-portraits. Vincent Van Gogh painted himself more than 43 times in a 3 year period. Modern artists, like Picasso and Warhol continued the tradition.
Given all this obsession with our own image, it’s no surprise that the invention of photography brought photographic selfies. The first selfie might have been taken as early as 1839 by an American named Robert Cornelius, after an exposure time of around 5 minutes—though there is some debate. Once consumer cameras were available, all bets were off. With the help of self-timers and tripods, polaroids and old-school photo booths, we’ve been snapping pics of ourselves with reckless abandon.
And then came the smartphone, tablet and the rise of social media. More intimate and revealing, these selfies featured the awkward angles and outstretched arms we’re now painfully familiar with. So that we don’t pull a ligament or two, there are now selfie sticks, shutter release remote controls and even hover cameras and drones to make the job easier.
It’s not entirely fair to compare the modern selfie to classic self-portraiture. While the activity is much the same, the goal is quite different. The modern selfie appearing in our social feeds is much more casual and materially obsessed. It’s a far less introspective art form than what the Masters were hoping to achieve in oil or watercolor.
Selfies are created to be shared, of course. It may take us several tries to get the right shot, but then they're shared immediately. A form of self expression and visual communication, the modern selfie truly reflects our cultural shift towards rampant individualism. They scream "Look at me and my wonderful / pitiful / chaotic / exciting life!"
Will it ever end? Doubtful. We’ve been obsessed with our own reflections since early in human history. But maybe we’ve finally reached peak “duck face”.