The practice of taking selfies not only makes up a large portion of our daily lives but also has become a significant aspect of visual culture in recent years. Since its official entry into lexicon by the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, the selfie has evolved from being a social phenomenon to a common activity. You could take these self-portrait type images in the event of something newsworthy to record your presence. It could be a casual selfie taken alone or with others, presenting a prosaic moment in your everyday life to share with friends and family or to display an emotion. You could also very easily apply a camera filter or use simple editing tools on apps like Instagram to create an idealized image of yourself with smoother skin or whiter teeth. It is for these reasons that selfies have too often been regarded as products of the age of narcissism, in which self-loving and attention-seeking individuals seek perfect images of themselves at the cost of distorting the truth. Self-portraiture that seeks to create idealized images of the self, however, has been around since the advent of photography in the 19th century and has proliferated with the mass consumption of cameras.
Prior to the mass production and distribution of the photographic apparatus, professional artists created portraits of the wealthy, whether via painting, sculpting, or carving on metal plates, to record realistic likeness. With the advent of cheaper photographic technology, more people became specialized photographers and operated photographic studios, making portraiture accessible to a wider audience. Although the photos taken are relatively realistic in depiction, “the means of staging,” writes Patricia G. Berman in her journal article Identity tourism: Studio Stagings, “offers an opportunity to exploit the gap between truth and representation,” thereby referring to the history of photography as the “history of visual fiction as much as fact.” Everything from the props and the furniture in studio photographs to the attire, painted backdrops and specific use of lighting and camera angles, transforms the featured individual into a new persona that fits his or her taste, thus curating an ideal self-image.
Berman gives the example of Sojourner Truth, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who fashioned her self-portrait with the utmost precision in order to appeal to her supporters. In the photo titled “I Sell the Shadow to support the substance,” (1864) she wears a head wrap and shawl to appear fashionable and dignified. She wears glasses while a book is positioned on a table next to her in order for her appear intellectual despite the fact that she was illiterate. To indicate bourgeois identity, she is also captured knitting in the frame. Berman concludes that studio photography during this time allowed for people with certain purposes, like Sojourner Truth, to create “fictitious identities” to represent themselves with a sense of agency.
The mass production of self-portraiture can be traced back to the 18th century. Portraiture itself was popularized with the invention of the carte-de-visite, or the photographic visiting card – a 6×9 cm image produced in studios to be mounted on small cards with imprinted names. Brainchild of an entrepreneurial photographer André‐Adolphe‐Eugène Disdéri, this form of portraiture was popularized in the mid-19th century and was specifically created to be shared with other people. Later in the 19th century, George Eastman’s creation of rolled photography film and the Kodak camera enabled camera owners to take pictures without paying a visit to the studio. The mass distribution of portable cameras, along with the introduction of the self-timer in the early 20th century, the automated photo booth in the 1920s and the Polaroid camera after WWII made picture taking more accessible, since they were relatively cheap and easy to use while producing immediate results. Such developments helped people become the agent in taking their own self-portrait.
The development of recording and sharing selfies via phone was an organic process that started with the rise of mobile cellular phones in the 1970s, the invention of a front-facing camera in the early 2000s and ultimately with the introduction of the Smartphone in 2010. It is needless to say that the development of the modern photographic apparatus went hand in hand with the evolution of wireless network technology and the rise of websites that allowed people to share their images. Smartphones today with various apps for filters and editing tools have enabled users to produce a limitless number of selfies to present themselves to the world in the best light possible, both figuratively and literally. Richard H. Saunders, in his article Making Sense of our Selfie Nation, claims that selfies are “logical form[s] of expression” that turn more attention to the self, paving the way for self-actualization and personal happiness. Whether selfies help us define and empower ourselves or whether they make us become more dependent on social media and conform to ideal beauty standards is debatable, but one thing remains certain: self-images have long served the purpose of connecting with one’s inner self as well as with people from all walks of life.