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.
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
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.
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.
Flash forward roughly four centuries, and the selfie enters a whole new arena with the advent of the first camera.
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.
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.
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 clan; Justin Bieber).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The selfie: A tool for social narcissism or self-empowerment?
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
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.