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Column: Selfies and the history of self-portrait photography

Are selfies a side effect of digital culture? A sad form of exhibitionism? Maybe – but perhaps can also be seen as a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence.

Kandice Rawlings

SELFIE – the Oxford Word of the Year for 2013 – is a neologism defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

The emergence of this phenomenon a few years ago was therefore dependent on advances in digital photography and mobile phone technology, as well as the rise of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, among other sites, which supply an outlet and audience for the photos. But a tradition of self-portraiture in photography is as old as the medium, and the popularity of amateur photography only slightly less so.

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

According to the Grove Art Online entry on photography, “Perhaps the most popular form of early photography was the portrait. The very first portraits, especially those produced by the daguerreian process were treasured for their ability to capture the aspects of facial appearance that constitute family resemblance.”

Invented by the French painter Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s, daguerreotypes, with their “cold, mirror-like appearance” were well-suited to capturing exacting likenesses of sitters. Portraits were the most commonly produced type of photographs in the first decades of photography, comprising an estimated 95% of surviving daguerreotypes. Among these are some exquisite self-portraits, including what may have been the first daguerreotype made in America, the self-portrait of the Philadelphia metalworker-turned-photographer Robert Cornelius.

Jean-Gabriel Eynard, daguerreotypist (Swiss, 1775 - 1863) Self-Portrait with a Daguerreotype of Geneva, about 1847, Daguerreotype, hand-colored 1/4 plate Image: 9.7 x 7.3 cm (3 13/16 x 2 7/8 in.) Object (whole): 15.2 x 12.7 cm (6 x 5 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesJean-Gabriel Eynard, daguerreotypist (Swiss, 1775 – 1863). Self-Portrait with a Daguerreotype of Geneva, about 1847, Daguerreotype, hand-colored. 1/4 plate Image: 9.7 x 7.3 cm (3 13/16 x 2 7/8 in.) Object (whole): 15.2 x 12.7 cm (6 x 5 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Many early self-portraits fall into two general categories. In the first type, which had a long tradition in painted portraits and self-portraits, the subject poses with a camera or a set of photographs, showing him as a professional of his trade. As portrait photographers competed for customers, these images demonstrated the photographer’s ability to capture a flattering likeness with his technical skill and his eye for setting and pose.

The other type of self-portrait seems to have been the photographer’s attempt to situate photography as a fine art, a novel idea during the era of early photography. In a fine example of this type, Albert Sands Southworth, of the firm Southworth and Hawesshowed himself as a classical sculpted portrait bust, with a far-off, romantic expression.

Although the daguerreotype was eventually replaced by other techniques (notwithstanding a 21st-century revival by Chuck Close), self-portraiture has remained one of the most interesting genres in photo history. It seems that from photography’s earliest days, there has been a natural tendency for photographers to turn the camera toward themselves.

Unknown maker, American, daguerreotypist Portrait of Unidentified Daguerreotypist, 1845, Daguerreotype, hand-colored 1/6 plate Image: 6.7 x 5.2 cm (2 5/8 x 2 1/16 in.) Mat: 8.3 x 7 cm (3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesUnknown maker, American, daguerreotypist. Portrait of Unidentified Daguerreotypist, 1845, Daguerreotype, hand-colored. 1/6 plate Image: 6.7 x 5.2 cm (2 5/8 x 2 1/16 in.) Mat: 8.3 x 7 cm (3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

These early practitioners were either professionals with studios or “skilled amateurs” – often wealthy individuals who took up photography as a fashionable hobby. It would be a few decades before new processes and equipment brought the making of photographs to the masses. Pivotal in the development of amateur photography, George Eastman’s Kodak cameras, which hit the market in 1888, were “designed for the general public, who had only to point it in the right direction and release the shutter.

When the 100-exposure roll provided with the camera had been exposed, the whole apparatus was returned to Eastman’s factory, where the paper rollfilm was developed and printed, the camera reloaded and returned to the customer; ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ was his slogan” (quite a bit easier than the painstaking process of creating a daguerreotype or a glass-plate negative). Kodak’s line of Brownie box cameras, first released in 1900 and priced at one dollar, made photography truly available to the broad public. Thus began a long era of popular photography made possible by the cheap production of cameras and efficient processing and printing of film.

"A Kodak Camera advertisement appeared in the first issue of The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman, November, 1889. The slogan "You press the button, we do the rest" summed up George Eastman's ground breaking snapshot camera system." Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A Kodak Camera advertisement appeared in the first issue of The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman, November, 1889. The slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” summed up George Eastman’s ground breaking snapshot camera system.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The next great pivotal moment in the history of amateur photography – and perhaps photography in general – was the emergence of digital photography. Early digital cameras were available on the consumer market in the early 1990s, but it was not until technical improvements and a drop in prices over the next decade that digital photography had replaced older technologies. In 2002 more digital cameras were sold than film cameras, and Kodak, a giant in American industry for much of the 20th century, filed for bankruptcy in 2012. According to Mary Warner Marien,

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…the public use of photographs has changed the medium. Where the photograph was once a tangible item, it can now exist as an array of pixels, seldom printed but collected in phones, cameras, computers and web-based image storage applications. Where once material photographs were saved, now photographs can be considered immaterial phenomena. There are more amateur photographers than ever before, and their conventions emerged in the early 21st century as powerful cultural shapers in the many branches of photographic practice.

The ease with which so many can take photographs of themselves and share them with an audience of many millions has made the selfie a “global phenomenon.” On one hand, this phenomenon is a natural extension of threads in the history of photography of self-portraiture and technical innovation resulting in the increasing democratization of the medium. But on the other, the immediacy of these images – their instantaneous recording and sharing – makes them seem a thing apart from a photograph that required time and expense to process and print, not to mention distribute to friends and relatives.

The ubiquity of selfies has naturally led some to wonder if the practice is either reflecting or promoting what many see as growing narcissism in contemporary culture. But perhaps, as Jenna Wortham suggests, selfies represent a new way not only of representing ourselves to others, but of communicating with one another through images: “Rather than dismissing the trend as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best — a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here. The rest, of course, is open to interpretation.”

Kandice Rawlings is Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online and holds a PhD in art history from Rutgers University. Read her previous blog OUP blog pots.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford University Press blog.

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Kandice Rawlings

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