Selfie; the Art History of Self-Freedom

Convex Mirror painted by Parmigianino
Parmigianino’s  proto selfie

Selfie, a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. Its concept has been widely used by those who are classified into Millennial generation whose ages are between 18-34 in 2015. Although some selfies were also taken by older people in the Gen X and Baby Boomer generation, millennial generation is still on the top. The number indicated that the millennial generation will be submitting more pictures as their access on online medium is getting more stronger for the coming years. Looking back from the old times, selfie was not actually a new concept in this recent years. A recent study believed that the concept of taking of oneself picture had a strong root from the early age of human culture.

Van Gogh
Van Gogh

Selfie can be tracked down as root of art history, especially from painting history. Jerry Saltz’s article in claimed the proto-selfie on self-portrait can be found in a Convex Mirror painted by Parmigianino in 1523. Parmigianino, an Italian late Renaissance painter draw his portrait as the effort to expose his painting talent to potential customers. Jerry expressed that all the attributes of selfie can be found here: the profile face from different angle, the distortion of arm, and close-in intimacy.


Thirty years later, the world was amazed with dozen of Van Gogh’s self-portraits during 1853-1890. Jerry said that he found strong selfie echoes in Van Gogh’s amazing painting. He said Van Gogh was trying to reveal something inner to the outside world as intense as selfie picture nowaday. Another “selfie_ish” picture also found in 1935 when M. C. Escher paint Hand with Reflecting Sphere in lithograph. Jerry argued that the lithograph could be defined as the first significant twentieth-century per-selfie. His argument was the picture conveyed with strange compositional structure dominated by the artist’s distorted face, reflected in a convex mirror held in his hand and displaying his weirdly foreshortened arm.

Robert Cornelius-first photograph selfie

Selfie in photograph was first recognized in 1839 when Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer in photography who captured himself in daguerreotype technique. It had been widely known as the first photographs of a person. The story went out when Cornelius experimented with this new camera at the back of the family store in Philadelphia. After, removing the lens cap, he run into the frame where he sat for a minute giving the camera processing the image. After that, he recorded on the back “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

Almost 61 years later, the photographs technique evolved when the portable Kodak Brownie box camera founded in 1900. The camera allowed a person to take self-portrait. The profile picture of Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna as the first teenager at the age of 13 who use the camera in 1914 showed that this profile style was suited with the younger age.

Anastasia said, “I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.” It happen when she sent the picture to her friend.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna

Over one decade, when the painting technique and photography technology evolved, taking a self-portrait was still uncommon.  However, the internet finally “made it” in 2002 when a picture of a girl was shared in one of Australian’s internet forum.

The word “Selfie”

Selfie as a word was found in the ABC Forum online in 2002 when Nathan Hope, known as Hopey went out for his mate’s 21st birthday and got a little accident. On 13 September, at 2:55 pm, he went onto the online forum to ask about the dissolvable stitches that were now in his lower lip. They were dry and uncomfortable. After a bit of chat back and forth, the entity known as ‘My Evil Twin, Beryl’ asked him how he came to get these stitches. She replied at 3.19 pm :

Australian Internet Forum in 2002- Hopey first selfie
2002- Hopey first selfie

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1 cm long right through my bottom lip.

He then posted a ‘self-photograph’ showing the stitches in his lower lip. he continued writing, and posted, the very first written use of the word ‘selfie’, in any medium (paper or electronic).

“And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie. – The Author”

The Oxford English Corpus stated that was the word ‘selfie’ got into the English language in 2002. Selfie might grew slowly at first. However, it took off extraordinary eleven years later as the rise of information technology was growing in a fast speed.

The Digital Technology Influence

Selfie might started with a painting when a painter try to capture their self portrait on the canvas. Then, it went to polaroid which made the photography work easily. It was also followed by a disposable camera allowed a person capturing himself without wasting much money. Last but not least, the flip phone camera were also significant to contribute in creating small and mobile gadget that made a person capturing his self-portrait in certain area. However, those pictures were still was recognized as self-portrait only. It was nothing new because people have been dealing with it for centuries with the medium and publication format changing. Oil on canvas inspired for a celluloid technique. In turn, it triggers for photographic film and digital media.

41p5o-orzcL._SY300_Selfie finds it strong word when smartphone’s front camera was found. In this super fast innovation, Smartphones camera’s quality absolutely improve and plays major role in Selfies in the near future. In addition, more smartphones from any brands have been produced with a high definition feature and some advance tools to enhance an image. As a result, many producers like Samsung, HTC, Blackberry, OnePlus 2, and LG are competing each other to invent a sophisticated feature including selfie application in dedication to Millennials generation.

Other important aspect for Selfie trend is the internet itself. It started in 1960, when ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was found and become the base of foundation of the Internet today.  The development of smartphone and the internet finally contributed to make selfie as a popular culture. The Oxford Dictionaries expressed that as smartphones have become modest for everyone. The technology itself finally has a powerful impact to produce and to share Selfie.

Connected to Social Media

Selfie depend on social media and photo sharing sites like Flickr and MySpace at first. However, both website still did not attract more users. It’s progress seems to be in a slow motion.  Flickr found by Ludicorp in 2004 as an image hosting and video hosting website has been quite successful by marking 6 billion total photos uploaded.  Meanwhile MySpace which found in 2003 served as a social networking website offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music, and videos has 50 million users worldwide now.

It was Facebook that found in February 2004 plays the crucial impact on bringing selfie into a popular trend. Facebook is still the biggest social media for selfie-sharing where almost 50 percent of selfies were submitted online. Followed by WhatsApp with 27 percent. Its number surpass the Instagram at the fourth place with eight percent. Additionally, it has total 1,2 monthly active user by 2014. As a result, more selfie can be posted and shared in a enormous number each day.

instagramMeanwhile, some mobile application photo sharing for example WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram also give significant number in selfie trend. All these application were major factors in creating some astonishing and hilarious selfies. However, Instagram that was found in 2010 has bigger influence in raising the number of selfie pictures. It allows user to use hashtags and more filters to enhance the picture. The filter itself allows a user to edit brightness, contrast, crop or resize, and add a certain tone to a picture that already been taken. Moreover, in August 28, 2015, the Instagram announced that the users can now post images in portrait and landscape layouts. The company, which is owned by Facebook, is expanding both photo formats and in-app ad options, changing the experience for users and advertisers alike.

According to Samsung’s survey in 2013, around one million people taking their selfies and sharing it to others. It also reveals that selfies make up almost one-third of all photos taken by people aged 18-24, with Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat bearing the brunt of that load. In November 2013, it was declared that over the previous year, the usage of ‘selfie’ had increased by an astonishing 17,000 per cent.

Today, selfies might be not dominated by younger people in the Millennial generation. It has been widely used for older generation with certain purposes. Beside celebrities, the political figure has already been acustomized with it. We can recalled, President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a group selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013. In the other hand, more selfie’s style had improved from a regular selfie to an extreme selfie as well as a hilarious selfie. At last, selfie has already been a tool of self-expression as well as a medium of self-freedom.

 The number of people uploaded selfie increases in a rapid growth. In addition, the word selfie was also embed with the female issue. Find it more on “Selfie Demographics.” 


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