We’ve Seen That Before: Selfies Part 2 – A Sense of Place

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. 

(Read Part 1 of this series)

In the epic age since Art Attack last added its own humble contribution to the myriadweird and cool-wierd bunch of selfie commentary currently on t’internet, in no less an organ then the Apollo Magazine, Maggie Gray has weighed into the fray.

She argues that museums labelling their self-portraits #selfies, is merely jumping on the bandwagon. “Selfie” and “Rembrandt” really don’t go together, and this attempt to merge genres is really just a cynical attempt to get noticed on social media and up their numbers at exhibitions. She quotes Jerry Saltz’s article attempting to place the selfie in a separate category: “It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history.”

Well, yes. Quite. Selfies are not self-portraits. Self-portraits are not selfies.

Self-portraits take time, skill, an abstraction of all forms in the mind only to re-create them artificially on a canvas or bit of paper. It’s a painstaking process, which requires a very different set of motivations than “Hey- everyone! Like my new hair?? LOL”.

Self-portrait in a convex mirror (1503), Parmigianino. Source: Wikimedia commons
Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a convex mirror (1503), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Source: Wikimedia commons

[Note on the image above: I had such a crush on Parmigianino when I was a teenager. Just look at his little boy-band face!]

But there are several very interesting reasons these new selfies are unique, and let’s talk about one of the most obvious ones now.


In very few self portraits do we see an attempt to show the viewer where the artist is. If the artist is anywhere, it is in a non-place, or a trippy nether land. In some Renaissance portraits, for example, you get a small window’s view of a place. Check out one of the earliest known self-portraits below, by Albrecht Dürer. 

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 26, 1498. Museo del Prado. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 26, 1498. Museo del Prado. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As this was a pretty new thing to do (paint yourself) Dürer later added an inscription below the window: “1498. I painted this after my image. I was twenty-six. Albrecht Dürer”. The window is small, but opens up the whole scene..to what? A lake and some snow-capped mountains. It’s not terribly specific. Art historians suggest it may symbolise Dürer’s recent travels, or perhaps his state of mind. (Snow-capped?) In any case, it’s not really a place. Or if it IS a place, it’s almost purely symbolic. 

There are a few exceptions, of course, but on the whole, a self-portrait focuses on the subject, not where they are. Yet, with selfies, where you are is just as important as who you are. In fact, the two are completely linked.

Selfie with Turtle
Selfie with Turtles

In my cousin Geoff’s picture, above, the point is not him, or his image. The point is that he is UNDERWATER WITH AWESOME TURTLES. Just in case you were wondering how he felt about this, the centre of the image is his ‘thumbs up’. In both diving speak and the world of Facebook- this is a good thing. So this ties his own identity, his “brand”, if you will, to the fact that he visits amazing places.

This core requirement of selfies has come about because the medium is easy and portable. If you can set up an identity through props, clothes and expressions (just like self-portraits) you can up the ante by adding in a sense of place.

We want not only to record a place (almost as a second memory) but to show we were there. Prove it. Remember how we felt in that place, right at that time. We take these selfies not as artists, but historians. Here’s a classic example- me and Joel at a beautiful lake in the Italian Alps:

Selfie in the Alps
Selfie in the Alps

We had an urge to record ourselves at that place, in that time. Did we want to show off? Was this connected to our identity? Yup. But we also wanted to remember- and a photograph as a second memory has a long history. Well, back to the beginning of photography, really.

Man and woman on Canadian side of Niagara Falls, circa 1858. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Man and woman on Canadian side of Niagara Falls, circa 1858. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The only difference now, is that you don’t have to awkwardly ask strangers to take your photo for you. And you can instantly share the image. So now, not only will you remember that you went to that place and did that thing, the WHOLE INTERNET will remember too. Legacy.

Next Time: Selfies- I’m with Stupid.

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