Project 4: Ex 4.4 Selfies

What does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays? Illustrate your post with recent examples from the internet.

As this is solely an exercise I’m using it to throw down a few passing thoughts on positive aspects which I think can sometimes get overlooked in the light of stories in the media more often revealing some of the unpleasant aspects and effects.

I recently accessed a Post on the British Library blog writing about the tourist season in London and so many people with selfie sticks and smart phones – “…. It’s easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist”.  But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.” That’s if we extend OED dictionary definition of ‘photographic self-portraits’ to cover those made with pen and ink then selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. The earliest known surviving manuscript self-portrait was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988) in the 10th century and the blog post goes on to provide other examples, explaining that these often involved a different type of self-promotion – one focused on humility before the divine and saints.  There also looks to be a useful website here and Frances Borzello (1998) also provides fascinating example of the ways in which female artists were also able to include references to themselves in their work at a time when women artists were not usually recognized.

Fast forward to photography:-

According to Petapixel the earliest self-portrait made was by Robert Cornelius  , an amateur photographer and lamp-maker.

(Downloaded from

Written on the back is, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839”  no specific date though, so let’s say he was the first American photographer to create a selfie and leave the laurels with Hippolyte Bayard (June 1839)   creator of the first staged photograph Self Portrait as a Drowned Man pretending to have committed suicide because of lack of recognition of his own invention of a photographic process, in favour of Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process.

Since photography’s origins in the late nineteenth century, artists have expressed the idea that the self-portrait is a form of performance. Kismaric states, “The photographer who attempts an investigation of his physiognomy or personality or who consciously or unconsciously projects an idea about himself enacts a role. The plasticity of photography allows the self-portraitist to experiment, to assume many identities; in self-portraiture the photographer can become the hero, the adventurer, the aesthete – or a neutral ground upon which artistic experiments are played out.” (Taken from a press-release for Self-Portrait: The Photographer’s Persona 1840-1985  an Exhibition at MOMA from 7th November, 1985 to 7th January, 1986.)

Cindy Sherman was one of the photographers included in that Exhibition and she is famous for her self-portraits commenting on traditional/stereotypical female roles. Sherman has also recently appeared on Instagram  with images that include weirdly distorted self-portraits.  I had almost reached the conclusion that this must be a different Cindy Sherman, but this was confirmed not to be the case by an article by Noah Becker which recently appeared in the Guardian  .  Thanks to my fellow student Sarah-Jane Field for alerting me to this article. Whilst I agree regarding the distorted shots and the mystery as to why Sherman is creating these portraits, I have thought further concerning Becker’s view that, “they hold up a dark mirror to our era of self-obsession”.

How is it that it’s okay for artists to continue using self-portraits to enact different roles and assume different identities but not okay for ‘the general public’ to do so with technology that is cheap, easily available and doesn’t require great photographic technique or talent?  The advent of cheaper cameras earlier in the 20th Century enabled those moving away from family to keep in touch in a more intimate way. Recent examples have been Facebook pages where those serving in the Armed Forces can do likewise. Adolescence is well-known as the time when many young people are struggling to answer the question, “Who am I?” and it’s not surprising that Facebook and Instagram have been seized upon by them so they can play out these versions of themselves.

Some artists have first become well-known through digital media. One such is Molly Soda, a digital performance artist who is best known for her book Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram (see here) She began creating artwork in the webcam days of MySpace and Tumblr and her work has now expanded beyond the internet. Soda has a strong Instagram following  (68.9k followers at 4th January 2018) where her feed is composed just about entirely of photographs of herself – un-photo-shopped and au naturel which she believes makes her followers less self-conscious about themselves as well.  You can find out more about her by putting her name in the search box on and this also brings up other posts on how Instagram artists are changing our views on body image and breeding a new generation of idols.

Another fellow student, Nuala, has just drawn my attention (via Facebook) to an article in Lens Culture . The essay by J.H. Pearl concerns the discomforts caused by being photographed, using Roland Barthes’ writing on this topic as a focus.  One of the paragraphs seems most timely in stating

To grouse about the vanity of selfies is to forget they comprise networked conversations. People, not just celebrities, use them to connect. For Barthes, ‘The ‘private life’ is ….that zone of space where I am not an image, an object”; the camera, he believed, invaded that space. But selfies seem less like invasions than invitations. And they permit us to be subjects, as well as objects, taking our own pictures almost however we like.



Borzello, F (1998) Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.






  1. Thoughtful and useful for me to read with regards my own current work. You ask some excellent questions… I might agree with you asking why it’s ok for artists but not others. But then, despite my own self portraits, have always wondered why it’s ok for artists to do them at all. I really struggled with my drive to focus on me in TAOP but was compelled to keep on doing it. Often it’s simply the easiest way to make art though because you’re there and you don’t need to rely on anyone else which is rather handy. And I think there is in fact something fundamentally different between the purposeful exploration of existence when relying on one’s self as the ‘actor’, and the everyday selfie. The collective obsession with self and cultural inward gaze perhaps short circuits relationships and concern for the other? I don’t suppose the answers are easy or simple.

    Sent on the run!



    1. I do keep pondering on selfies. I certainly remember in my early teenage years wondering about the meaning of life and what I might like to be when I got older. It was all thinking though so no kind of ‘role play’..

      My dad did have a camera and occasionally took photographs of me and my mum but not to any great extent. Would it have been different if we had the internet then and camera phones. Maybe not because I saw my friends every day at school and then, some of them, after school. We were constantly talking to each other so probably something like Facebook would be superfluous, especially as my ‘best’ friend lived near me anyway. There are so many variables!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, my son doesn’t ever invite his friend’s over and nor does he go to their houses. They meet online or hangout away from home. It’s odd but he says he’s too embarrassed by his family ….! The selfie thing is as you say difficult but you know I do think that in order to get by in this world nowadays a certain amount of pushy self-adulation is probably necessary, or at least feels so. I have been working with ‘me’ recently and making selfies as you have seen and I feel soooo conflicted by doing so. Is it ok to be so focused on one’s self? I recommended The Narcissistic Epidemic to a friend who’s doing teacher training at the moment as she is finding the younger generation in her cohort quite extraordinary (although to be fair they are mostly, she says, rather privileged sorts from around here) and she has worked as a SEN TA for a couple of years so quite experienced already. And a proper grown-up too. But you may find that useful if you are interested.


      2. I can understand the hanging out away from home – I did the same as well. I wrote in an earlier post re researchers finding that being online was viewed as a way to get some space from parental demands.

        Re the necessity for pushy self-adulation – I’m not sure. Maybe it’s connected with place and working environment. Will add The Narcissistic Epidemic to my list.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There are two points here which have touched me: the selfies unlike the self-portrait are made so that they can be instantly uploaded, instantly shared with people known and unknown to you on a vast scale and it is that vastness, that reaching out to the unknown that bothers some and excites selfie-makers. My second point is that this could be an aspect of the ‘conceptual solipsism’ which came up in the article on Barthes that you mention – the self is all that can be known to exist – so you put the only thing you know out there perhaps to prove that you exist? When I looked at selfies, I looked at Kim Kardashian and her tome of 400+ pages of selfies which flew off the shelves almost before it got there. Baudrillard and the question of media and meaning vs information spring to mind.


    1. Good points. Maybe some people need to prove their existence more than others do?

      I remember your look at Kim Kardashian. I was going to write that I don’t understand it but then recalled that Burt Lancaster was one of my heroes and I even sent away for photographs of him and went to the cinema to see the film “Apache” at least three times! There was something about him that fascinated me – I think he probably reminded me of my dad.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is indeed an interesting thought, why is it ok for artists but not photographers? Photographers have been taking self portraits for years but as Anna says it is the ability to upload instantly to social media and be seen by anyone who cares to look that has caused the explosion in recent years. ‘Here I am on holiday, I may be by myself but I’m still having a lovely time!’ I had never been a big fan of Cindy Sherman but made a concerted effort to go an see an exhibition of her work whilst in Berlin on holiday a couple of years ago. Some of it still leaves me cold I have to say but I did find some of the distorted self portraits quite fascinating. Is she just poking fun at some of the stereotypes or do these images represent her own identity crisis. The video interview that accompanied the exhibition suggested to me that it was as much the latter as the former.


  4. Cindy Sherman’s self portraits are really odd. I hadn’t really thought too much on identity crisis but maybe that could play a part given that her choice has often been glamour stereotypes.


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