At arm’s length: The evolution of the self-portrait into the selfie

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Selfie—the Oxford Word of the Year for 2013—is a neologism defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

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Photo by Levi Elizaga

You might be surprised to learn that many of the Old Masters as well as modern artists have reproduced their own images throughout history as well, reflecting not only the person through the lens, but also the culture and customs of the era. Read on to discover the fascinating evolution of this not-so-modern phenomenon, and the artists who were at the helm of the self-portrait revolution.

1493: Albrecht Dürer

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Commonly referred to as the “inventor of the selfie,” German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was extremely conscious of his self-image, which often took center stage in his practice. At twenty-two, Dürer painted the Self-Portrait with Carnation (1493, Louvre), which critics think was made to send to his fiancé—in true modern-day selfie style.

1510: Leonardo Da Vinci

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Created circa 1510, Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk is widely believed to be the only known self-portrait of the master artist. As Leonardo was born in 1452, he would have been nearly 60 years old when he completed this work by hand.

1656: Diego Velázquez

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Centuries before taking a photo in the mirror became a go-to selfie technique, Spanish painter Diego Velázquez made himself the center of attention in Las Meninas (“The Ladies-in-Waiting”), his 1656 painting of the Spanish royal family. The king and queen are reflected in the mirror at the back of the room, their daughter stands in the center, while the artist himself is looking straight towards the viewer.

1839: Robert Cornelius

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In October 1839, Robert Cornelius, then 30 years old, set up his camera at the back of his father's shop in Philadelphia, removed the lens cap, ran into the frame and sat stock still for five minutes before running back and replacing the lens cap. In so doing, he had created what is believed to be the first photographic self-portrait.

1920: Claude Cahun

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French photographer Claude Cahun produced a stunning series of self-portraits in the 1920s, disguising herself as a vampire, angel, and skinhead, among other costumes. She was a prolific writer as well, with her writings pointing to her identifying as agender, though most academic articles refer to her using female pronouns. Often working with her partner Marcel Moore, her self-portraits focus on undermining gender roles and delve into questions of identity.

1940: Frida Kahlo

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Beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo transmuted a painful life into captivating self-portraits that are emblematic of suffering with attributes like a necklace of thorns. SelfPortrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird from 1940 remains one of her most prized portrayals. The oil painting features several symbols and concepts prevalent throughout her portfolio, including foliage, wildlife, and suffering.

1966: Andy Warhol

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While people don't always associate Andy Warhol with photography, it was a fundamental part of his creative process. Often working with Polaroids due to their speed and ease, Warhol shot a large number of self-portraits, some of which were later adapted into silkscreens. Self-Portrait (1966) was constructed in what would become one of Warhol’s signature styles—a grid of bright, colourful portraits. 

1980: Robert Mapplethorpe

Self Portrait 1980 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

Legendary and controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, best known for his sexually charged black and white images, immortalised his own image throughout his career. His self-portraits reflect his wish to both carefully cultivate his “cool” image and to reflect different dimensions of his personality. Pictured is the aptly named, Self Portrait (1980).

1981: Cindy Sherman

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A chameleon in her own work, disguising herself as an ever changing range of characters, Cindy Sherman is one of the most successful photographers of her time. Her photograph, Untitled #96 (1981), set a record at an auction in 2011, selling at Christie’s for $3.89 million. She’s known for her meticulous detail in makeup and costumes, as well as her acting ability, which allow her to morph into vastly different figures for each frame.

2006: Trish Morrisey

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For her series Front (2005-2007), Trish Morrissey travelled to various beaches in the UK and around Melbourne, looking for family groups. She then asked if she could take the place of one of the female family members, borrow her clothes and be photographed—by the woman she had replaced. Morrissey's photographs are distilled performances that ask all sorts of questions about the role of sitter and photographer, the role of photography in creating fixed ideas of family, and the nature of the self-portrait when pushed beyond its usual boundaries.

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Photo by Lieue Marine

The selfie dates back much further than the 2000s and is far more complex than simply flipping your iPhone camera to self-portrait mode and deciding on the best filter. From Renaissance painters to today’s contemporary modern artists, self-portraiture has been (and continues to be) a defining aspect of artistic practice and cultural life for a millennia.