A friend of mind called me recently and said that he went to Paris to see Mona. Arriving at the Louvre, he was shocked and discouraged to walk into the spacious gallery and see crowds of people facing… him. With their backs to the main attraction and their arms raised, it seemed that no one was willing to look at anything besides their phones. Fat chance he only happened to go on an extra crowded day. He despises the Selfie and finds it socially destructive to the art form of photography, narcissistic and overabundant. However, this is because his understanding of the Selfie is only taken from his personal perspective; where lies the foundational inquiry into its wider identity and functions?
There are plenty of times and places to take a Selfie but the gallery isn’t it, or maybe it is. Would Andy Warhol take a Selfie, standing before a looking glass with his self-portrait hanging on the wall behind him? Someone give him an iPhone. Joking aside, Selfies are not a new trend or style of photography, it just happened to turn into a publicly accessible movement that swept the world through the development of the front-facing mobile phone camera in 2003, solidified by Apple’s developments of the technology in 2010. The self-portrait was established in painting using a system of mirrors way before media outlets and celebrities made it a fashionable, Insta-worthy habit. Think Rembrandt’s self-probing images made all throughout his lifetime and the playful pioneers of photography living in the 1800s; so many artists have employed the technical style and made it their own.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery, London

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery, London


The Art Assignment and PBS Digital recently teamed up to present The Art History of the Selfie. Of course there is much animosity towards the common Selfie flooding Facebook, but by making examinations within the context of Fine Art, haters might begin see the Selfie in a new light.
There are a few names that come to mind when thinking of artists who have toyed with their own identities using self-portraiture; the likes of Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, the above-mentioned Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe… and those are the heavy hitters. But this quick, comprehensive video outlines a few unknown characters who also can claim to be forefathers of the Selfie. The research into the art form is impressive, the timeline is coherent and the language used is simply enough put to satisfy any curious mind wanting to indulge in an adroit investigation into the self-centered, sometimes silly, sometimes seductive, sometimes outright sickening social media trend.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1977

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1977


The nature of representation, identity, gender, sexuality, adventure— these are just a few of the recurring themes found in Selfie photography. It is fascinating to imagine that the common pose-and-tap-the-screen action performed today was indeed a transformational art form ahead of its time. The further advancement of pixel and mobile technology will prompt even further exploration, and exploitation, of the “Self”.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid Series, 1970-1975, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid Series, 1970-1975, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


I recommend this short lecture for anyone who enjoys photography, for the cynical and for all those guilty of assuming the duckface in a Selfie. Search for common ground to admire and understand, before judging of one today’s fastest spreading cultural sensations as pure nonsense. Celebrities didn’t make the Selfie famous, inquisitive artists did. Let’s not overlook noble roots where they lie. For the sake of our technology-driven society, and of those who might remain unaware, let us spread the word that Art History is our history.
Sean Steadman

 
 

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