The selfie is more popular than ever, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. Rembrandt painted self portraits in the 1660s “to keep himself busy in between commissions and because of his ongoing fascination with the aging process,” says Nigel Hurst, CEO of the Saatchi Gallery, in London.
The first known photographic selfie was taken by American photographer Robert Cornelius in 1839. Although selfies were popular with photographers and artists throughout the twentieth century, they didn’t become mainstream until the invention of the smart phone. In 2010, a front-facing camera was built into the iPhone 4. By 2013, the word selfie was so popular, it was included in the Oxford English dictionary.
My interest in self portraits started in the late ’70s when I got my first camera. I had been fascinated by some fantastic self portraits Lee Friedlander took in the 1960s. These were far from the typical smiling, head-and-shoulders shots with a famous landmark in the background. Friedlander appeared as a shadow, or as reflection in mirrors or windows. There was a deadpan sense of humour in the photos that attracted me. Over the years I’ve taken many of those, most often trying to emulate that quirky sense of humour I admired in Friedlander’s shots.
Taking a selfie can wake up plenty of the uneasiness that can be stirred when others are photographing us–that feeling of whether we look good enough, whether we’re aging well, whether we’re fashionable or geeky or cool. As a father of two teenage daughters (as well as the partner of a woman I’ve been married to for more than twenty years), I’m keenly aware of how remorselessly photography tracks our aging selves. In a society that persistently judges and comments on women’s looks, perhaps it’s helpful for girls and women to grab the camera back and be in charge of it.
One of my daughters takes dozens of selfies; the other takes very few. My wife puts up with being photographed, but she’s nowhere near as comfortable with it as I am. I think it would be a mistake to read much into these habits. For instance, is the daughter who photographs herself vain, and the other one modest or self-conscious? I see no evidence of that. I like being in my photos, but do I think I’m better-looking than my wife thinks she is? Does she feel less attractive than I do? Possibly not. (Both of us are ordinary-looking people, neither splendid nor ugly, now in our fifties and thus pretty much invisible to society at large.)
Like a mirror, a camera is one more way we can engage with ourselves. The surface is only a tiny bit of who we are–but it’s the only part of us the world can truly see. Who is this person, out walking around in the world, with a head stuffed full of unique thoughts and ideas? A camera can be a doorway though which you get outside yourself–a rare and valuable thing.
Will you be taking any selfies today?
Self Portrait, 1983, is from the series: New York City