Pretty much everyone—from pre-gaming college students to world leaders—has taken and shared at least one selfie. In fact, Joe Biden posted his first selfie—with Obama, of course—to Instagram yesterday.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary’s designation of “selfie” as 2013’s Word of the Year might make us think that the phenomenon is new, the idea dates back at least to the early 16th century, when Parmigianino, an Italian artist, created an oil painting called Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In it, Parmigianino’s hand appears unusually large; the size of his hand indicates the distorting effect that the mirror has on his appearance.
The first photograph resembling the kind of selfie we’re familiar with was taken by Robert Cornelius, a photographer from Philadelphia, in 1839. Since then, the selfie’s popularity has only grown: In December, Obama took a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Last month, Jimmy Kimmel’s selfie with the Clintons went viral. And a Google search of the word “selfie” garners 44 million results. This is proof that in both the public and private spheres, the selfie has become a ubiquitous form of visual self-documentation. But are selfies their own visual genre? Have we all participated in the emergence of a new art form?
One could argue that taking selfies is an empowering method of visual self-expression, because we savor the control that we have over the process of creating. In his TED Talk titled “Be an artist, right now,” Young-ha Kim, a prominent South Korean author, argues that each of us was born with artistic inclinations. Even in childhood, these tendencies are evidenced by our desire to scribble on walls with crayons or to lie to our parents, because “the moment kids start to lie is the moment storytelling begins.” Kim defines creating art as the process of expressing and revealing ourselves with intentionality. The power and deliberation with which we take selfies is what we enjoy so much about that artistic process.
Alondra Nelson, a Columbia sociology professor and the director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, asserts that taking a selfie enables the photographer to take hold of each step in the process of artistic creation. “When you take a selfie, you self-construct your image,” Nelson states. “You can take five, 10, or 20 different selfies and choose the photo that you think you look most compelling or attractive in, and circulate that on social media.”
In an article for the website Psychology Today, Sarah Gervais, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, makes a similar assertion about how visual self-documentation is a way for people to express their personal autonomy, often through social networking websites. “Instagram (and other social media) has allowed the public to reclaim photography as a source of empowerment in a way that has never been possible before,” she says.
She continued by saying that people can take untouched selfies through Instagram to resist the unrealistic standards implemented by often-airbrushed fashion magazine photos featuring physically flawless cover girls. Individuals may use photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram to reinforce the notion that we need to look flawless in our photos, but usingthe platform as a tool to change culture is an available option as well.
Phone apps like Instagram are certainly a widely used, and therefore effective, means or responding to the media’s presentation of physical beauty. They do this by allowing us to invent our own visual media. Therefore, taking and posting selfies is a way for us to create culture by subtly countering the messages that the media distributes. Even when we don’t counter the messages, per se, we are, at the very least, still publicizing our response to them, because what’s more personal than a close-up of one’s own face?
Sure, apps like Instagram offer filters that allow us to swiftly make our photos, and our faces, look more appealing. However, using filters is different from using Photoshop to airbrush figures. Our deliberate use of photo filters reflects an aesthetic sensibility for the types of faces, scenes, and objects that look beautiful and striking, without completely altering their appearance, which airbrushing often does.
The circulation of selfies through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media outlets is the second purpose for taking them. If we place great energy into capturing a visually compelling version of ourselves, why wouldn’t we want to share that with others?
“Selfie culture wouldn’t work if all the photos you took of yourself were on your hard drive,” Nelson argues. “Those selfies need to circulate.” That selfies need to be seen in order to be meaningful suggests that taking selfies is a way for us to fulfill our innate human need to be seen and recognized.
Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, a professor of sociology at Columbia, thinks that taking selfies is “one expression of a human desire that we have. We memorialize things, and we’ve done it in other ways. Buying postcards is one example of memorializing something—in this case, it’s your presence in a specific part of the world. Selfies are a more personal way to accomplish the same goal.”
Meanwhile, as Nelson points out, the fact that anyone with access to a cell phone camera can take a selfie “shows that the process of taking a selfie has become more democratized.” Since it is such a widespread way to take one’s own picture, Ferguson argues that there are many “selfies that are pretty awful from what I’ve seen, but they don’t have to be that way.”
According to Ferguson, the wide range in quality of selfies shows that although they comprise a new genre of photography, they are not considered works of art, “which are deemed as such according to elaborated criteria that a select group of people agree upon.”
But Nelson thinks that by engaging in a new photographic genre, we are redefining the meaning of art. “Selfies are part of the evolution of self-portraiture, because at one point in our lives, the concept of a selfie didn’t exist,” she states. Just as a world-famous painting or a captivating performance leads spectators to pause and focus their attention on the art in front of them, selfies, which give us a chance to display ourselves in the most striking way possible, can have the same effect on a viewer.
Although the selfie as an art form is a debatably valid categorization, one thing is certain: We, with our #selfiesundays and #nofilters, are actively participating in a modern take on the historic art of portraiture.