A mingled groan and “hmmm” went up around the globe this past weekend when we heard that snap queen Kim Kardashian plans to release a 352-photo book of selfies titled, appropriately, “Selfish.”
Given the title of the book — and its subject matter — you might assume that the tome is just one more sign of society’s impending, head-first plunge into Narcissus’ pool. And you might be right, in some respects — depending on how the book is packaged. Will it be a kind of Warhol-inspired look at fame through a celebrity’s own gaze? Or will it (more likely) be just a bunch of photos of Kim looking pretty? Only time — and a bunch of publicists — will tell.
The mere existence of the book, though, is just the latest chapter in the lifespan of the selfie, one that stretches back to the pre-phone, pre-camera days. It even goes further back than the MySpace shot, you guys — it’s that old.
Allow us to dive deep …
Selfies Have Been Around For Longer Than You Think
If you think the first selfie was taken by some teen in his/her bedroom, cheesing with a Polaroid camera, you’re way off-base. The first “selfies” weren’t even captured on film.
“It really begins in the 1600s when Rembrandt famously paints a self-portrait,” Ben Agger, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas at Arlington, told MTV News.
Many artists have since put a brush to canvas and sketched their own faces, but Rembrandt van Rijn was as big a fan of immortalizing his own face as Kim: He painted more than 90 pictures of himself during his lifetime, creating a kind of autobiography in the paint.
It took a few more years for the selfie to progress past canvas, to a medium that allowed those of us whose artistic ability doesn’t extend past drawing smiley faces to etch our own mugs in light.
“That takes us up to the fateful year of 1839, which is both a random year and random person, although he actually plays a major role in the history of American photography,” Agger said, explaining how the photographic selfie was pioneered. “He’s a guy named Robert Cornelius, who in 1839 snaps the first photograph of himself.”
The previous statement probably has your mind-gears grinding. It makes sense that America would be into self-congratulatory snaps, right? But the phenomenon is truly a universal one. Many sources have claimed — erroneously — that the term selfie itself was first coined all the way around the world in Australia.
“That brings us up to stage number three, which gives us the vernacular term ’selfie,’ ” Agger said. “Some people think in 2002 … an Australian Internet citation apparently first uses the term ’selfie.’ ”
Agger is referring to a 2002 science forum post on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in which a user named “Hopey” shared a photo of some truly gnarly looking stitches on his lip, writing, “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
Despite media outlets’ claims that Hopey — a.k.a. Nathan Hope — came up with the term, however, Hope told ABC that it was already part of the vernacular. “It was not a word I coined,” he said. “It’s something that was just common slang at the time, used to describe a picture of yourself. Fairly simple.”
In short: The origins are still unknown but a bunch of dudes in Australia were apparently throwing the term around back when the millennium broke.
’Selfie’ Was Cemented Because Some Guy Was Really Excited About Cameras
Author and photographer Jim Krause actually claims to be the first person to have used the term in print, when he published a book titled “Photo Idea Index” in 2005. But when he busted out the term, he wasn’t extolling the virtues of vanity — he was just geeking out over digital cameras and their myriad possibilities.
“My recollection is that my friends and I — I’m a graphic designer — were really excited about digital cameras and the fact that you could waste a lot of pictures and not worry about it,” Krause told MTV News. “The idea of taking pictures of ourselves came up — probably not something we did a lot of. And we just started calling them selfies.
“I don’t know if I thought of it or one of my friends thought of it — and they don’t remember either,” Krause continued. “So basically, it arose because we were so thrilled about digital cameras.
“I realize that it’s a word that people have mixed feelings about,” he added. “Some people see it as the end of the world that selfies are taking over. Sometimes people ask me whether I think it’s a sign of people being so egotistical or wrapped up in themselves. I’m like, ’I don’t know, I think egotistical people will always be there — bless their hearts.’ I don’t think it’s the end of the world.”
Selfies Are About Identity As Well As Vanity
Many selfies seem to be a call for praise, a sign that the takers are proud of their appearance and want others to affirm their attractiveness. Though according to some, the act of posting a selfie is more about identifying yourself than showing off your extreme hotness.
“The subtext of all selfies seems to be, ’Here I am.’ And for some, ’Here I am. I’m adorable,'” Agger said. “And so that’s kind of a locating of oneself in time and space.”
That’s an assertion that James Franco, the Selfie King to Kim’s Queen, would agree with.
In an essay for The New York Times, Franco wrote in defense of the selfie: “Of course, the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing.”
“I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with,” he added. “In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ’Hello, this is me.'”
Hence the proliferation, as well, of time-lapse videos in which folks take a selfie per day for years, showing how they have grown and changed.
Artist and professor Karl Baden has been taking selfies of himself since February 23, 1987 — the day after Andy Warhol died, which he said, in retrospect, makes sense.
“I knew — especially in his films — he was very interested in time passing in kind of a boring way, like they say, ’watching paint dry,’ ” Baden told MTV News. “For example he did ’Sleep’ which was hours long, only of someone sleeping. Or the Empire State Building for 24 hours … I was stunned when he died.”
When it came to his own project, Baden focused the camera on himself for myriad reasons. “I guess from there it was not a big jump to pick myself, I could’ve used a plant or an animal or a building or something like that, but I was interested in a number of things,” he said. “First, I was interested in mortality, as we all are. You know, I’m not obsessed with it, but the older we get we think about mortality. Second, I was interested in incremental change.”
Over the years, Baden doesn’t appear to have changed much — he also kept his appearance as close as possible to how it was in 1987 — except for during a period in 2000.
“In 2000, I was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I went through six months of chemo and surgery and my treatment lasted about a year. In that year, obviously I changed physically, but I changed back with some ways. … That was a really important time for me to photograph.
“Recently, what I’ve tried to do is see each picture that I do as almost a cypher,” he added. “A symbol or metaphor and what it becomes is a metaphor for what happened in the world on that day.”
And that’s what selfies have become — or, rather, what they always been since Rembrandt’s days: another way to document. In some respects, yes, they are a grab at self-esteem but they’re also a kind of history.
Even Andrew Taggart of The Chainsmokers, who penned that song about “basic girls in the club,” “#SELFIE,” would agree. “I think they’re great,” Taggart told MTV News. “I don’t think it’s the sign of someone who’s like basic and dumb — that’s for sure. Obviously they can be used for that purpose, but…” He went on to explain that when visiting, say, a historical landmark, you can take the same snap that everyone else does — or assert yourself into the shot and thus orient yourself in a period of time.
His favorite selfie, he said, won’t even be posted on social networks, where it would likely collect “Likes” like honey does flies. “We took a selfie with Rick Rubin who is an idol of ours,” he said. “We’ll never show that to anyone, but it’s f–king awesome.”
They’re Not Going Anywhere
Although the idea of the selfie is much more deeply engrained in the public consciousness today — it’s in the dictionary, it has its own TV show, etc — as you can see, the idea is nothing new, really. Humans have been seeking to document themselves — to orient themselves in their own time and place — for centuries now.
So the next time your parents roll their eyes when you lift your camera and whip out some ducklips*, remember these words of wisdom from Agger: “Older people might think selfies are inherently trivial and both narcissistic and exhibitionist, but I think that they might need to think twice about that — especially if they go back to Rembrandt.”
*(Scratch that. Ducklips are never OK.)