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IDEAS | ZACHARY DAVIS

The long, empowering history of selfies

Dan Pecci

By Zachary Davis  

The first selfie was taken in 1839 on a daguerreotype camera by a man in Philadelphia named Robert Cornelius. Cornelius was an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast. He took the image by removing the lens cap and then running into frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. The amazing thing about the image is how modern his expression looks. In our time, the selfie is an easy target — the symbol of a rising tide of narcissism in modern society — but Cornelius’s photo suggests that the desire to depict ourselves is much older than the invention of the smartphone.

Library of Congress

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839.

Yet for the vast majority of human history, most people lived their whole lives without really knowing what they looked like. For centuries, peering into a muddy puddle of water was the only option most people had, explains historian Ian Mortimer, who’s written about the invention of mirrors in medieval Europe. Even those few with access to mirrors didn’t fare much better. “You can’t actually get a very good idea of what you look like in a polished bronze mirror,” Mortimer says. “They reflect back only 20 percent of the light. It’s really only with the invention of silver mirrors that you begin to get a clear vision.”

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The first glass silver-backed mirrors were developed around the year 1300 and were so expensive that only the nobility could afford them. Gradually, over the next few centuries, the cost of mirrors fell. For the first time, ordinary people could see and recognize themselves. We even have record of sailors on board Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose in 1540 using a shaving mirror.

Artists quickly embraced the new technology and experimented with a new genre of painting: the self-portrait. “You see the selfie in Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol,” says Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, author of a recent book on the history of the selfie. “Maybe they don’t extend one of their arms and turn the camera onto themselves, but the attempt at making a portrait is quite old.” Modern people are not obviously more self-involved, Stavans says. After all, “painting a self portrait can take hours, days, maybe even months or years to be made. The selfie is done rather quickly.”

Unexpectedly, something as seemingly frivolous and ephemeral as the selfie has become a tool for individuals and groups to subvert social power dynamics. Many black women, for example, share selfies as a way to challenge non-European standards of beauty. Mothers share breastfeeding selfies as a way to decrease the stigma of feeding babies in public. Self-photography can even be a way to stand up to governments. In 2014, after Turkey’s deputy prime minister called on women to not laugh in public in order to “preserve morality,” tens of thousands of Turkish women went on social media and defiantly posted pictures of themselves smiling, giggling, and guffawing. Their photos quickly went viral.

Instead of writing off selfies, what if we looked at them as a sign of people taking control of their own representation? The next time you see a selfie, remember that it has a long history — and there just might be more there than meets the eye.

Zachary Davis is the host of the new podcast “Ministry of Ideas.” Listen at ministryofideas.org, iTunes, or GooglePlay.