The selfie. It’s here to stay. If that statement fills you with dread, take heart. It may not be as bad as it sounds. While the proliferation of inane and inappropriate selfies causes us to fear the end of civilization as we know it, the selfie phenomenon has its uniquely engaging qualities as well. We just have to filter through the narcissism parade and duck faces to find the genuine fun and interest. It can be done!
I should confess that I’m not a big selfie taker. It’s probably because I don’t have a good phone for it (yes, I still use a Blackberry). But I did take this one recently in the art model’s changing room at FIT. If I look stressed it’s because the prior two hours involved a total shutdown of all downtown subways in Manhattan due to signal problems. That meant I was caught in the rain with no umbrella and had to walk 30 blocks, through gridlock traffic jams and blaring sirens and horns, from the upper East Side to get to my job at FIT. After drying my hair with paper towels and getting undressed, I took this selfie as I waited for the teacher to start class. What a day that was.
The truth is that there’s nothing really new about the selfie. The word may have triumphantly found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, but if we define the term to mean simply a picture one takes of one’s self, then it’s been around as long as we’ve had the tools to create such a picture. Before cameras went digital, there were selfies and plenty of them. If we want to stretch the meaning to include images of the self of all kinds – before photographic technology was even invented – then the self-portraits of artists give substantial weight to an otherwise frivolous sounding term. Isn’t an artist’s self-portrait the painter’s version of the “selfie”? So we can just go ahead and crown Rembrandt, who created dozens of self-portraits, the King of the “selfie”.
The earliest known photograph of a human being was, in fact, a selfie. Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist in Philadelphia who ran a silver-plating business, experimented with his camera one day and took this daguerreotype in 1839. Robert doesn’t have to comb his hair, because he’s a badass ;-)
If the selfie craze of today has earned some degree of scorn it’s probably because it feeds groan-inducing vanity and attention-seeking, two things our culture could use less of these days. The obsessive urge to document every moment of our lives is another off-putting aspect of the selfie generation. I don’t need to see celebrities, or anybody for that matter, on the toilet.
But the urge to “document” is, in itself, generally a good one. I’ve seen quite a few genuinely interesting, humorous, spontaneous and charming selfies that weren’t driven by purely “Look at me!” impulses. If a twelve year old boy meets his baseball idol during batting practice, then sure he should get that selfie with him. He’ll treasure if for the rest of his life.
She was the “Inquiring Photographer” for a Washington newspaper before she met the future President. Here, Jackie Kennedy takes a mirror selfie with Ethel and John, 1954:
A selfie, Stanley Kubrick style. On the set of “The Shining”, the famed director snaps a mirror selfie with his daughter, while Jack Nicholson stands in the foreground:
Jeff Bridges, using a Widelux lens, takes a selfie with Sam Elliott on the set of the Coen brothers 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski”:
I like to visualize the selfies that could have been. If you have any disdain for the selfie, picture these imaginary captures and consider how awesome they’d be on social media. It might change your mind. I’ve used contemporary jargon and Internet-era parlance. I’ve also included hashtags, because you have to use hashtags. You have to ;-)
At the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams takes a selfie on his Android with a grinning Benjamin Franklin who, with his fingers, makes rabbit ears behind Adams’ head. Thomas Jefferson photobombs in the background. Adams posts it to Twitter with the caption “We did it!! Freedom in da house!! Grab your muskets colonists!! #yolo #KingGeorgeisapunk #tasteitbitches #pursuitofhappiness”
Michelangelo atop a scaffold near the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Disheveled, miserable, biting down on paintbrushes in his mouth, he stretches out his arm and takes a selfie on his iPhone. He posts it to Instagram with the caption “Wish I never took this commission. WORST. JOB. EVER. #paintingsucks #biteme #myasshurts”
Jo Hiffernan, artist’s model, muse, girlfriend of James Whistler, on a break while posing for Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, takes a nude selfie with the caption “Don’t blame me. Some Ottoman diplomat requested this painting. LOL. #sorryJames #CourbetIsCrazy #imfreezing”. She posts it to Facebook where it is promptly taken down for violating Terms of Service.
An epic selfie. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s photo of himself from the Gemini 12 mission which he proudly shared on Twitter last summer:
Pope Francis takes the first “Papal selfie” with a group of young visitors at the Vatican:
So whether we like it or not, we’ll have to roll with the selfies. They have, for better or worse, hit the big time and will even dominate the news cycle in some instances: Ellen at the Oscars, which received over 3 million retweets on Twitter, and even heads of state amusing themselves at a funeral.
I don’t think I’ll be taking more selfies anytime soon, but if I do I know Mona’s got my back. #TeamMuse #artselfie #LeonardoRocks :-)