The evolution of the selfie

Last updated 14:30 05/04/2016

Selfies generate outrage now, but only because they are unavoidable, says Sarah.

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In 2013, the word 'selfie' was entered into the dictionary as a new word, but the concept of producing one’s image by one’s self is not a new thing.

Art history shows us we have been obsessed with capturing our own image for long as humans have existed; however the artistic means of capture has evolved as time has passed and the level of irk the act causes has escalated rapidly.

We can trace the act of capturing one’s self for posterity right back to the dawn of human civilization.

The difference in 2016 is the technology used to capture our image, the time used, the ideals behind production, the means of distributing our creations, and the audience size witnessing our creations.

* The relentless love of the selfie
* What to make of Generation Selfie?
* Dealing with the demands and pitfalls of fame

In the past it was very difficult to create a self-portrait, which is essentially what a modern selfie is - the act of capturing one's image by one's self.

A self-portrait was restricted in the past to those who had the money to pay an artist and those who had the time to sit for an artist while they painted.

In most cases, the subject controlled how they wished to appear; just as a modern selfie-taker controls how they wish to appear in their filtered images.

A self-portrait was also one means for an artist to capture their own visage. The resulting work was a way for them to self-promote their skills by showing off their abilities to capture people accurately yet also in a somewhat flattering light. Self-promotion, sound familiar?

When you look into the history of the selfie, you can see that the quantity of selfies increased as technology developed; mirrors, while insignificant to us now, were quite a development for self-portrait artists wishing to capture their own image in a painting.

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Some painters, when using a mirror to paint, factored in the distortion the convex mirrors of the time caused on their appearance, and so produced self-portraits that looked exactly as they looked while gazing into their primitive reflective devices.

In 1524, Parmigianino worked this concept into his self-portraiture and when you examine his work it is plain to see he was using a mirror.

Kim Kardashian is a prolific sharer of selfies. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/KIMKARDASHIAN

Technology had a real effect on the quantity of self-portraits; there are many self-portraits in the early Renaissance period simply due to the fact that mirrors became better and cheaper at that time.

The evolution of technology continues to have a bearing on the quantity of self-portraits produced today. We are seeing more selfies being taken as smartphones become more popular, cheaper, and equipped with cameras as a standard feature.

As with the portrait painters using mirrors, the temptation to capture one’s own image is too much to resist.

Photography-wise, it has been claimed that the first actual selfie, or portrait taken by one’s self with a camera, dates back to 1839 when Robert Cornelius captured himself in a crossed-armed pose.

As cameras became a household item, people were taking selfies but they were not taking many due to the cost of film and the cost of printing. The difference between then and now is that unless they were an artist or part of a publication or exhibit of some kind, then they would have had no means of sharing their photographs any wider than the walls of their own home.

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Selfies generate outrage now, but only because they are unavoidable; the internet provides a platform for anybody to share their own creation with themselves as their subject.

And of course these days, some people generate a lot of anger for their risqué selfies, but the act of revealing one’s flesh in a self-portrait is not new to our age.

In 1906, the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker painted a self-portrait depicting herself with bare breasts. That’s a whole 110 years before a certain person thought she was ingeniously displaying her prized assets on the platform Instagram.

And it wasn’t just an act for the ladies. Thomas Eakins also created a nude self-portrait in 1883; before Modersohn-Becker herself had even dabbed her brush in any nude-toned paint.


These days, rather than being an act of talent involving time, passion and ideas, they are one-off acts fired off in a second without much thought. They are now mass produced items intended for mass consumption.

The problem with selfies is that anyone can thrust their ideas upon the unsuspecting public regardless of the merit or ideas behind their creations.

Selfies can be seen to be a public act, in the sense that they are shared on the internet, which is a public domain. They are even discussed about in the media and can be headline grabbing, just as actual works of art would have been discussed in the publications of the past.

In the past, works in the public domain were restricted and carefully selected to not only be beautiful but to also reflect the morals and values of the country.

Now, works in the public domain represent a kaleidoscope of ideas, values and morals from the very good to the very bad.

This is why they generate outrage.

The general public is just not generally interested.

How do you feel about selfies? Do you think they're harmless fun and a good way to strive for love, connection and acceptance? Or are they narcissistic displays that can damage body image?

Share your reader report, of 250 words or more please, on selfies by clicking the green button below. 

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