History of the selfie

history of the selfie

It has been 180 years since the first known selfie was taken. Here is a brief introduction to the history of the selfie — self-portraits.

The Oxford English dictionary selected the word “selfie” as the word of the year for 2013. The dictionary defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, especially one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”. As it explains, the selfie has two important aspects — to be taken, and to be shared. Under the coronavirus lockdown, people share their selfies with #stayathome, or #stayathomeselfie on Instagram. Thanks to our technology, we can take and share our selfies swiftly. However, in the history of photography, the selfie — a photograph of oneself — was not always easily taken or shared. Technology has changed the way we live, and the way we take selfies. 

The first self-portrait

Robert Cornelius / Public domain

In 1839, the word “selfie” obviously did not exist. Instead, there was one man who became the first person to take a photograph of himself as a self-portrait. Robert Cornelius (1809-1893), an amateur chemist in Philadelphia, took his own photograph through the daguerreotype process. This new technology was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) in France, followed by the official announcement of the invention in August 1939 at the meeting of the French Academy Science of Paris. Unlike photographic paper, the daguerreotype was an image on a fragile silvered copper plate which required great care to treat. Exposure time ranged from three to fifteen minutes, which made portraits nearly impossible to be successfully shot. 

Despite all inconvenience, Cornelius succeeded to take a mid-close-up self-portrait in the yard behind his family’s lamp and chandelier store, where he could expect sufficient light. He posed for a minute before he covered up the lens with the lens cap. At the back of this fragile self-portrait, he wrote: “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

The self-portrait as a means of protest

Hippolyte Bayard / Public domain

Behind the epoch making announcement of the daguerreotype in Paris in 1939, there was a french servant who claimed that he had invented his own method of capturing photographic images on paper. His name is Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887). Unfortunately, his invention was not recognized as much as the invention of Louis Daguerre by the French Academy Science of Paris, who already made a substantial investment on the daguerreotype. Although he claimed his discovery to the Academy, they gave him petty cash in order to assure him that his invention was inferior and essentially useless. He expressed his disappointment of being dismissed by the Academy in his photo “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man”. On the back of the photo, he wrote: 

“…The Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself”.

180 years have passed now — this photograph can be reliably recognised as the first propaganda self-portrait

The “revolving” self-portrait

Nadar / Public domain

Photograph: Nadar (1820-1910) – Animation: Racconish / Public domain

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon a.k.a Nadar (1820-1910) was a french photographer, caricaturist, and balloonist. In the 1850s, the new technology of photography called wet collodion process was becoming popular. It was a process through which photographers could duplicate images by using a glass negative instead of exposing light directly onto the plate or the paper. This development of photography led to the boom of portraits and lots of studios were established in Paris. He moved his studio from St.Lazare to Boulevard des Capucines where he enhanced his career as a portrait photographer, and took numerous portraits of people including Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Franz Liszt, and George Sand. 

The wet collodion process enabled photographers to use a camera with multiple lenses and negatives on a single glass plate in which each picture could be separately posed. He took himself from 12 different angles by using this new technology.

The invention of the mass-market camera

User Ericd on en.wikipedia / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Despite its great advantages, the wet collodion process was not suitable for outside shooting. Photographers had to carry a 50kg portable darkroom to avoid the glass negative being dried up throughout the shooting and development process until dry plates were introduced in 1878. This discovery created a boom of small hand-carried cameras including the Kodak Camera by George Eastman (1854-1932), an American inventor, in 1888. In 1900, the first mass-market camera Kodak Brownie went into the market with a relatively low price and this created the concept of the “snapshot”. The impact of the invention of a hand-carried camera was undoubtedly big in the history of the selfie. Photographers came out to the street from their studio. 

Self-portrait in the street

laurel nyc on Flickr

Lee Friedlander (1934-present) is an American photographer who published his book “Self-Portrait” in 1970 in which people can see a new style of the self-portrait. He slipped himself in the noisy landscape of New York by manipulating light and shadow. A small part of his image appeared in mirrors, windows, or on the street cast as a shadow. 

Feminism and self-portrait

rocor on Flickr

Cindy Sherman (1954-present) is an American photographer who is often regarded as a member of the pictures generation which was influenced by conceptual and pop art. She was the subject of most of her own works. In her work “Untitled Film Stills” in 1980, she disguised herself with makeup, wigs and costumes as iconic movie figures in the 1950s like Monica Vitti, Sophia Loren or Brigitte Bardot. Her self-portraits often linked to feminism by its questioning of the objectification of women in art.

#Selfie movement

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I  my new Anthro sweater

A post shared by Jennifer Lee (@jennlee) on

The emergence of digital photography and the smartphone was the biggest driver of the current selfie boom. In September 2001, a group of Australians uploaded the first digital self-portraits described as a “selfie” on the internet. In 2010, Instagram launched as a platform for everyone’s photographic activities and in the following year, the first image with the hashtag #selfie was uploaded by user Jennifer Lee. In 2014, 24 billion selfies were posted on Google’s servers. Could our predecessors have imagined that the selfie would evolve into such a big phenomenon?

Nowadays, people can take their own photos anytime with front-facing cameras built into their phones. Easy and quick. However, knowing the history of the selfie allows us to be more thankful for the evolution of technology. Why not try to stop one moment before you post your selfie on Instagram, and think about how blessed you are? 

About the author

Ayumi Miyano

Japanese journalist a bit obsessed with photography and video editing. A pure generalist living with the motto: “Life is an experiment”.

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