We’ve Seen That Before: Selfies Part 1

Welcome to a new segment entitled ‘We’ve seen that before’, because nothing makes us historians more smug than pointing out that some recent phenomenon has origins or parallels with something long established. 

A few months ago, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that ‘selfie’ was the Word of the Year 2013. Since then, selfies and related (mostly freaky) phenomena have been getting much more coverage in the press. In fact, according to some media watchers/comedians, we’ve now reached ‘Peak Selfie’. Loads of people all over these inter webs are writing about selfies, why add to the noise?

I’ll tell you why- they are all doing it wrong.

Why haven’t art historians been storming the internet, demanding some kind of visual analysis? (Maybe they have, but we are a tiny discipline comparatively, and perhaps that discussion has been lost in the noise…)


Though the word apparently originated in Australia some years back, the selfies themselves came about with our new mobile technology- we’ve had cameras we can take about with us for ages, but somehow when you put said camera in a mobile phone, the urge to hold it out at arms length and snap away is that much stronger.

Classic selfie. Photo by akseabird

I’m fascinated by selfies. They seem to be tied very deeply to identity- both an individual’s identity and our modern conception of ourselves. In the same way, artists have been doing self portraits since the Renaissance: a fascinating combination of ‘Hey, look what I can do!’ and ‘Hey, look at me!’ which have some striking parallels to selfies. As I started looking into this, I realised that though there has been a lot of noise about selfies lately, I’ve not read much about how they function on a deeper level. These blog posts attempt to break down some basics- food for thought, if you will.

Selfies and Self-Portraits: All About Identity

“When it is the artist’s own face, the potential for revelation is all the greater” – Vivien Gaston

On a certain level, this is pretty duh. Selfies and self-portraits are about the person in them, the person who created them.

We are programmed as a species to read faces- this is no abstract subject or hazy landscape. This is something familiar and legible to us- but we very rarely break down what we see when we look at a face.

But the fascinating thing about analysing these images as an art historian is separating the intentional from the unintentional. What that person meant to convey, and what they accidentally do convey.

Let’s look at our friend up there in the blue shirt. While waiting for the bus, she snaps a selfie.  What does she attempt to convey?  She wants us to see her as attractive: she’s well-practiced in the art of holding the phone up slightly to get a more flattering angle. She’s young, slightly trendy without trying- she’s got classic ‘I’m a smart and stylish person’ glasses and a cool leather corded necklace. She’s still wearing her headphones, emphasising both her detachment from the tedium of commuting and her cool musical taste (this is implied, we don’t know what she’s listening to, but we judge by her clothes that it’s not Katy Perry.) But most of all, most telling of everything, is her look to the camera. Direct, serious, but with a small smirk on the lips. It seems as if she wants to say, with that look, ‘I know what’s going on, and I’m in control.’

But, of course, there are things this image is conveying that may not have occurred to her. She’s bored, for a start. Waiting for a bus, she delves into her phone and entertains herself for a few seconds. She’s also concerned about her image. This is an attempt, in that moment, to ‘brand’ herself as a smart, confident woman. But the very origins of the image, the ‘brand’, come from a lack of confidence: a need to have others see her as she wants to be seen. There is no pretence in this selfie to another ‘reason’ for the shot- no run-ins with a famous person or a beautiful landmark. She’s just at the bus stop. She’s standing in front of a boring car park. It’s all about her.

Now, just so we’re clear: if I was a betting woman I’d put money on this gal being pretty cool. I don’t know her, but I’m pretty sure that 90% of the time she IS that confident, smart and in control woman she presents in the photo. But the point here is we’re all human, never quite the ideal we attempt to present to the world. Selfies are methods of revelation as well as branding, if you know where to look.

Self-portraits operate in a very similar way. They also have the power to reveal unintentional aspects of the artist’s identity- but it’s harder to pick out, as the whole image is so carefully constructed- how can we tell what is intended and what is simply revealed? Does it matter?

SelfP1-Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey, Self Portrait 1904, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

One hundred and ten years ago, Hugh Ramsey was attempting a similar look. Turning to the viewer as if he had been interrupted, his gaze is penetrating and quick. His lips pursed as if he is about to speak, the focus fully on his face- his suit  blends into the brown background and our eye glances over it quickly.

What does Hugh intend here?

It’s hard to say for sure. We guess, based on what we know about him as  a person (which is cheating, I suppose) and our own impressions of his painting.

A penetrating, thoughtful, worried look? A seemingly serious or dark portrait (all those neutral colours!) with a vulnerable, illuminated face? Is that conscious or unconscious?

One of the main differences between the selfie above and the self-portrait below is that the artist knows his medium, knows (presumably) the traditions of self portraiture, and chooses to respond in a very specific way, adding his face and voice to this tradition, with his own personal twist.

Our selfie-taker also has a tradition she is working in, just a much younger one. No one is going to ask her what she’s doing with her phone- we all know. But how conscious is she of what she is making, or its implications?

Both selfies and self-portraits reveal vulnerability; and maybe we KNOW we’re letting on more than we can control, but that’s the beauty of this kind of medium- we show ourselves to the world: all of us.

What do you think? How much does an artist or selfie-snapper consciously reveal in his/her efforts?

Next time: Selfies: A Sense of Place




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