Project 4 and Exercise 4.4

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.