The Self-Portrait vs. The Selfie

REVIEW • SELFIES AS ART

written by Emerson Rose Craig


We might live in a time where selfies are a regular part of society, and it is hard to see them as art, but that does not mean this is how they will be seen in the future.


The first photographed self-portrait by Robert Cornelius in 1839

The first photographed self-portrait by Robert Cornelius in 1839

The Beginning of Photographic Self-Portraits

The first photographed self-portrait was taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. At this time artists had to be creative in how they took their photographs because of the new technology of the camera, which also included how they could take pictures of themselves. They achieved this by quickly running in front of the camera, like Cornelius, the use of mirrors, or holding the camera at arm’s length. Artists took hold of the challenge and found ways to use this medium to create a self-portrait that contained both realism and a way to express themselves as much as paintings at the time could. Some of the most celebrated artists in the last 150 years took hold of the medium and created great works of art under the genre of the self-portrait. This includes artists from Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Salvador Dali, and many more.

The Birth of the Selfie

It is somewhat hard to differentiate selfies from self-portrait photographs, but there are two key moments that led to what we know as the selfie. First was when cell phones became publicly available with built-in cameras in 2002, this included the Nokia 7650 and Sanyo SPC-5300. This was an essential step for selfies as this meant that the masses had access to easy to cameras that they could carry around in their pocket. The second was when the word selfie was put into the dictionary in 2013. The definition in the Miriam Webster’s dictionary is: “an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social networks.” Selfies, as we know them, were formed alongside the creation of social media as a way to for people to show themselves and their lives to the world.

Painting vs. Photography

Photography has been battling painted self-portraits as to whether to be considered art since photography became a medium. The main argument is that in painted self-portraits there is more artistic freedom to not just represent the self but express the self. Examples of this are Pablo Picasso and his use of cubism and Frida Kahlo and her use of surrealism and symbolism. There is also an argument that the mediums and painting and drawing show the artists motivation through their lines, shapes, and choices in colour. Over time photography proved that artists could take this medium and be just as creative and expressive. Artists like Salvador Dali created composed photographs, working intricately with lights, mirrors, and subjects to create his art pieces. Artists like this proved that photography was as much an art form as painting and drawing.

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 1st June 2014), 2014 (Credit: Amalia Ulman/Arcadia Missa)

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 1st June 2014), 2014 (Credit: Amalia Ulman/Arcadia Missa)

Selfies as Art

There is a debate as to whether or not selfies can be considered self-portraits. This comes down to if selfies should be regarded as art. Since selfies came into being in the 2000’s they have been considered a narcissistic photograph. They are seen as part of the online culture of posting images to social media to put a fake or more impressive version of yourself online. On the other hand, selfies are a form of self-expression. Now that anyone can take a photograph of themselves there is an idea that the art has been taken out. Of course, some artists take selfies and prove that they can use this medium to create complex and exciting art. But the question is about the masses. Can selfies stand alongside photograph and painting self-portraits? This comes down to the subjective. Not every selfie is considered a work of art, partially because they have been normalized, but it comes down to how the person taking the picture feels.

The Future of the Selfie

We might live in a time where selfies are a regular part of society, and it is hard to see them as art, but that does not mean this is how they will be seen in the future. Many artists and were not appreciated until after their death, like Vincent Van Gogh who only sold one painting during his life but is now known as one of the greatest painters of all time. The selfie is the current medium, and its ability to be art depends upon its creator. Looking at self-portraits through history, you cannot help but wonder if they would have preferred the selfie to their own medium had they had access to the technology. While this is a question without an answer, it does call out the notion of defining art though nostalgia. Simply because it was created in a different era does not mean it is art, and just because selfies are normalized in society does not mean they do not have potential to be art. In his book about culture studies Michael Ryan said “You only notice when you change and enter another culture”. Retrospection can severely change the meaning and way things are views. Selfies are the way people currently tell their story, and that could mean that one day it is how people will be viewed in history. It is how many will be remembered and, in some ways, live on into the future.