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A short history of the selfie
A closer look 04 Nov 2017

A short history of the selfie

No, the selfie wasn’t invented by millennials! Before the smartphone era, selfies were called self-portraits. And, just like selfies, self-portraits exasperated more than a few people (they even got on Baudelaire’s nerves). Travel back in time with Artsper, escape the modern-day selfie and discover it’s long history.

selfie Cornelius

Who took the first selfie ?

The story of the first selfie is the object of much contention. In 1939, two years after the daguerreotype (one of the first cameras) was invented, amateur chemist Robert Cornelius was the first to capture his own image, finding a way to do so which took under a minute! But the story doesn’t end there.

Selfie Hippolyte Bayard

The very same year, Hippolyte Bayard was also seeking a way to capture images. He ended up inventing a photographic process similar to the Polaroid. To do this, he carried out a range of experiments and took images of himself in the process. This means he was producing the first photographical self-portraits six months before Robert Cornelius. Unfortunately, his process would never be recognised by the Académie française, which, though an admirer of his talent, had already focused too heavily on Daguerre to be able to invest elsewhere, thereby overlooking Bayard’s three years of experimentation. The ill-fated Bayard subsequently expressed his disappointment by depicting himself as a drowned man.

The narcissism of the petty bourgeoisie …

In the 1850s the Parisian petty bourgeoisie were keen on having their appearance immortalised through photography, particularly by the photographer Disdéri who spearheaded the concept in the city. He wanted to capture the image of his models but also their personality. Lacking any real artistry and motivated by narcissistic instinct alone, visiting cards bearing their owner’s portrait were strongly criticised by François Victor Fournel and Charles Baudelaire who were exasperated by the self-centredness of the bourgeoisie. Some people even went as far as buying celebrity portraits sold by the daguerreotypists, adding them to their own family albums to pretend they were related to these public figures. Fortunately, a few years later, the photographer Nadar would redefine the art of portraiture and give it proper artistic meaning, eventually convincing  Baudelaire to accept the medium.

Selfie portrait carte de visite

The selfie in the mirror…

If you thought Skyblog and Instagram created the mirror selfie trend – think again!  Harold Cazneaux was already taking his own image using a mirror in 1910. Plenty of artists would subsequently follow suit and capture their own reflections in shop windows, mirrors, with their friends, etc.

Selfie miroir

The experimentation of artists…

Although selfies can seem narcissistic, for twentieth-century artists they became a way to experiment. Surrealists like Man Ray frequently used them to create altered versions of their own image, while Andy Warhol immortalised his face using a photo booth. Lots of photographers use the self-portrait to explore their own identity such as Francesca Woodman, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Ai Wei Wei, who even uses them on social media…

selfie Andy Warhol

The drunkenness of the first selfie…

The selfie has now become accepted by society and the term has even entered the dictionary! The word was first used in 2002 by an inebriated young Australian man who used it to comment on a selfie showing an injury he had sustained during a drunken evening. The term went viral on Myspace and then spread to other social networks…

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About Artsper

Founded in 2013, Artsper is an online marketplace for contemporary art. Partnering with 1,800 professional art galleries around the world, it makes discovering and acquiring art accessible to all.

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