Exploring the evolution of the selfie saga

'Star Wars' recently launched an official Instagram account, and kicked things off with Darth Vader selfie.

“Star Wars” recently launched an official Instagram account, and Darth Vader is excited about it.

We’re living in the age of the “selfie” – a habit so ubiquitous in today’s social media-centric culture, it was named “word of the year” in 2013 by the most venerated gatekeeper of the English language, the Oxford Dictionaries. Even prior to that, the term’s status as a lexicon it-kid was heralded in 2012 after Time Magazine declared it one of the “top 10 buzzwords” of that year.

If dogs could take selfies, the world would be a more awesome place. But alas, canines do not have opposable thumbs.

If dogs could take selfies, the world would be a better place. If only they had opposable thumbs.

Today, what reportedly emerged in 1839 as the original “selfie” has nearly two centuries later evolved into a full-fledged genre of self-expression – one that offers a unique (and sometimes bizarre, see: Selfie Olympics) glimpse into the lives, psyches and personalities of the individuals who take them.

Your ancestors loved their selfies

Marie Antoinette

If Marie Antoinette had a smartphone, she would have taken a lot of selfies. Portrait done in 1783 by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Photo source: Wikipedia

Early self-portraits are what author Francis Borzello referred to as “painted versions of autobiography” – a medium in which individuals can reveal certain character traits, explore inner turmoil, arouse intrigue, impart a sense of mystery, provoke speculation or reflect on how they are feeling at that particular moment in time.

Gustave Courbet, self-portrait, circa 1844-1845. Controversial French painter and leader of the Realist movement Gustave Courbet encouraged the perception of himself as an unschooled peasant.

Gustave Courbet, self-portrait, circa 1844-1845. The controversial French painter and leader of the Realist movement encouraged the perception of himself as an unschooled peasant. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of the earliest fine art “selfies,” commonly referred to as “Portrait of a Man in a Turban,” is thought to have been completed in 1433 by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Turban, circa 1433.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Turban, circa 1433. Photo source: Wikipedia

Self-portraits such as Van Eyck’s gained wider traction in the artistic community during the Early Renaissance, after mirrors became better in quality and more affordable.

Flash forward roughly four centuries, and the selfie enters a whole new arena with the advent of the first camera.

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia, took her very own selfie in 1913 -- five years before her untimely death. Using a Kodak Brownie, a camera released in 1900, and a mirror to capture her own likeness, the then 13-year-old is seen gazing at herself with curiosity. Source: The Daily Mail.

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia, took her very own selfie in 1913 — five years before her untimely death. Source: The Daily Mail.

This picture (below) snapped in 1839 by a Philadelphia man named Robert Cornelius – an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast – is considered by many to not only be the first photographic portrait ever taken, but also the first-ever selfie, according to the The Public Domain Review.

American photography pioneer Robert Cornelius produced this daguerreotype of himself in 1839.

American photography pioneer Robert Cornelius produced this daguerreotype of himself in 1839. Photo source: The Public Domain Review

The importance of not only “expressing the self” but duly “expressing who you are at a specific moment in time” was thoughtfully explored in a 2007 article by writer/artist Pam Gaulin, who underlined the self-portrait as a “form of art which artists use to express who they are, right now.”

“The self-portrait is an artist’s snapshot of their soul, their vision, and their life,” she wrote.

 Post-Impressionistic Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous and prolific self-portraitists, is said by critics to have given the impression of an artist “deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of illness.”

Post-Impressionistic Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous and prolific self-portraitists, is said by critics to have given the impression of an artist “deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of illness.”

Iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo might have furrowed her unibrow at seeing this school of thought applied to selfies proliferating social media ad nauseam from repeat offenders (see: Anyone from the Kardashian clanJustin Bieber).

Frida Kahlo self-portrait, circa 1940. Iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo experienced intense relapses of pain following a nightmarish bus accident in 1925, and subsequently depicted great discomfort, mental anguish and physical suffering in many of her 55 paintings self-portraits – a number of which were painted during periods of convalescence.

Iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, self-portrait, circa 1940. Photo source: Wikipedia

But other legendary heavyweights in the photography world – the illustrious Annie Leibovitz or pioneering Ansel Adams, for example – might very well validate the selfie as a condensed and modernized technique rendering self-expression accessible to a broader audience.

Ansel Adams self-portrait, circa 1950.

Ansel Adams self-portrait, circa 1950. Photo source: Christies

Annie Leibovitz self-portrait, circa 1970.

Annie Leibovitz self-portrait, circa 1970. Photo source: NPR

The selfies of today

The smartphone selfie is to the 21st century what flappers and speakeasies were to the roaring 20s, or what Woodstock was to the late 1960s: an undeniable contributor to our era’s digitally-dominated zeitgeist.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins takes a selfie while floating around in space. No big deal.

These days, the selfie has flown the Twitter/Facebook coops to permeate virtually every nook and cranny of our daily lives, from commerce to politics (see: Polling booth selfies sweep the Netherlands), journalism to religion, advertising to television, entertainment to literature.

President Obama’s now infamous snapshot alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt was fodder for days for morning news anchors, talk show hosts and political pundits following Nelson Mandela’s October 2013 funeral. Photo credit: Roberto Schmidgt/AP.

President Obama’s now infamous snapshot alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt was fodder for days for morning news anchors, talk show hosts and political pundits following Nelson Mandela’s October 2013 funeral. Photo credit: Roberto Schmidgt/AP.

A group selfie shared by 2014 Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres featuring some of Hollywood’s royalty (a certain Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper, to name a few) was splashed across headlines for weeks after the March 2 photo went viral, temporarily crashing Twitter and later earning the coveted title of “most retweeted photograph, ever.”

Dubbed by Ellen Degeneres as the most "epic" selfie ever, this group Oscar photo starring Hollywood's finest took Twitter by storm.

Dubbed by Ellen Degeneres the most “epic” selfie ever, this group Oscar photo starring Hollywood’s finest took Twitter by storm.

Even the stoic, no-nonsense General Colin Powell couldn’t resist tooting his own horn amid the whirlpool of Oscar selfie hubbub, posting a “throwback Thursday” photo in a playful attempt to upstage DeGeneres.

That's right, Colin Powell, aka the "reluctant warrior" took selfies even before it was cool.

That’s right, Colin Powell, aka the “reluctant warrior” took selfies even before it was cool.

Use of the selfie as a lighthearted tactic bridging generational gaps is another offshoot of the trend surfacing among disparate populaces such as the Vatican and its younger, social media-savvy flock. An August 2013 shot of Pope Francis posing with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio inside St. Peter’s Basilica illustrates the Pope’s vision of steering the Papacy into a more modern, informal age.

Pope Francis has his picture taken inside St. Peter's Basilica with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio.

Pope Francis has his picture taken inside St. Peter’s Basilica with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio.

History isn’t outside the selfie’s Midas touch, either. As part of a spring 2013 ad campaign hammering home the slogan that “you can’t get any closer than news,” a South African newspaper called the Cape Times published a re-imagined collection of photographs starring iconic figures such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Winston Churchill and the famous WWII sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square, NY, among others.

Two re-imagined historic photographs of Winston Churchill, left, and the famous WWII soldier kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square, NY, published by a South African newspaper as part of an ad campaign titled, "You can't get any closer than news."

A re-imagined historic photograph of the famous WWII soldier kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square, NY, published by a South African newspaper as part of an ad campaign titled, “You can’t get any closer than news.” Photo source: AdWeek

The selfie: A tool for social narcissism or self-empowerment? 

Mustache selfies. Not everyone can pull them off.

Chest hair mustache selfies. Not everyone can pull them off. Jealous? Inspired? Scared? All of the above?

The selfie has its healthy share of naysayers, including the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – which recently published a report (although its methods were questioned by critics) on how the “selfie trend increases demand for facial plastic surgery.”

Rapper Eminem spends some quality time with the Mona Lisa, and documents it with a selfie.

Rapper Eminem spends some quality time with the Mona Lisa, and documents it with a selfie.

In a 2013 spirited tirade on Jezeble.com, writer Erin Gloria Ryan candidly and astutely explored the selfie as a call for affirmation and “a logical technically enabled response to being brought up to think that what really matters is if other people think you’re pretty.”

See: Teen selfie-snappers are going wild for the “Selfie Stick”

If you want to be taken seriously in the selfie world, Elle Magazine goes so far as to suggest investing in the ‘Selfie Stick,' otherwise known as a camera extender or monopod. Photo credit Bianca Bosker/Huffington Post.

If you want to be taken seriously in the selfie world, Elle Magazine goes so far as to suggest investing in the ‘Selfie Stick,’ otherwise known as a camera extender or monopod. Photo credit Bianca Bosker/Huffington Post.

But the selfie pendulum swingeth both ways. If social narcissism is the selfie’s ying, those who sing the selfie’s praises will argue that self-empowerment is the yang.

Mary Ann, 10, and Mary Grace, 14, take a selfie front of Anibong Bay in Tacloban, Philippines. Photo credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam. This photo was part of a blog post featuring inspiring selfies from the areas hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan.

Mary Ann, 10, and Mary Grace, 14, take a selfie front of Anibong Bay in Tacloban, Philippines. Photo credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam. This photo was part of a blog post featuring inspiring selfies from the areas hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan.

TODAY's 'Love Your Selfie' series explored body image obsessions.

TODAY’s ‘Love Your Selfie’ series explored body image obsessions. Photo credit: Today.com

The self-composed image is a “natural form of self-expression” that can “actually prove very healthy – even empowering,” argued social media reporter Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post.  She directs attention to findings released by the Today Show, which, in conjunction with its “Love Your Selfie” project, conducted the Ideal to Real TODAY/AOL Body Image survey and found 65 percent of teen girls think selfies boost their confidence.

Some supporters of the selfie argue that it helps re-define what real beauty is outside the narrow mold of pop culture. See exhibit A, supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

Some supporters of the selfie argue that it helps re-define what real beauty is outside the narrow mold of pop culture. See exhibit A, supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Photo credit: Glamour.com

San Franciscan Laci Green – a self-esteem and body image vlogger, among other things – summed up what she calls the power of the “selfie revolution” in a December 2013 YouTube post. Green lauds the “celebration of the self” as an opportunity to branch beyond society’s “very narrow” and “unattainable” definition of beauty.

 

 

 

 

The short film from beauty company Dove encourages young girls and their mothers to re-define "beauty" for themselves, and the selfie plays a big role in that process.

The short film from beauty company Dove encourages young girls and their mothers to re-define “beauty” for themselves, and the selfie plays a big role in that process. Image credit: Dove

 

That same sentiment of encouraging women to re-define beauty through their own lens is portrayed in the short film “Selfie.” The seven-minute documentary was produced by beauty company Dove as a part of its Real Beauty Campaign and debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

 

 

 

Also extolling the virtues of the selfie? Self-described “selfie king,” actor/director James Franco. The “Pineapple Express” star waxes straightforward dogma on the selfie phenomenon in a famously picked-apart guest column for the New York Times.

James Franco gives us a glimpse into the mysterious world of celebritydom.

James Franco gives us a glimpse into the mysterious world of celebritydom.

“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…we all have different reasons for posting them, but, in the end, selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are…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.’” (See: Franco’s selfie column in the New York Times).

Even venerable news titans such as the Wall Street Journal have explored the “art of the phone portrait” and how mastering the tactic can be “an important professional skill” for fashion bloggers who leverage their large social-media presence into a career.

Even venerable news titans such as the Wall Street Journal have explored the “art of the phone portrait” and how mastering the tactic can be “an important professional skill” for fashion bloggers who leverage their large social-media presence into a career. Photo source: Elle.com

Here at ArcSoft, the fun and simple freedom to define and own your style is what we love about our popular free makeover app, Perfect365. It allows users to customize unique looks that project personality, and feel confident putting their best face forward in a climate where much of our human interaction – whether it’s for business, social networking or keeping in touch with loved ones – takes place on a digital platform.

 

 

 

 

 

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Having recently reached a benchmark of 30 million Perfect365 downloads, we’re excited to play a part in the evolution of a social phenomenon and see what new trends develop in the not-so-distant future in the world of the selfie.

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