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  • A portrait of the selfie

    Portrait of the artist
    Portrait of the artist

    Oxford Dictionaries has picked selfie as its 2013 Word of the Year (WOTY). Announcing your word of the year in mid-November guarantees a lot of attention from journalists and late-night TV comics, but it also suggests that not much is going to happen, linguistically, in the six weeks that remain in 2013. The Web of Language won’t make its annual WOTY pick until late December, and the American Dialect Society makes its announcement in early January. Nevertheless, judging from the attention it has gotten, selfie seems a good choice.

    If you want to know what a selfie is, you won’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster. The American Heritage Dictionary labels the word as “informal,” defining it briefly and using it in a sentence:

    A photograph that one takes of oneself: He texted a selfie to his friends.

    Self-portraiture is nothing new. Artists have always represented themselves, so selfies are as old as art itself. But with the popularity of small point-and-shoot cameras and mobile phones, now everyone’s an artist, and whether you’re sending a snapshot of your face or some other body part, selfies, or digital self-portraits, have become a prominent photographic genre, just as digitized tweets, texts, and blog posts have become prominent written genres.

    Oxford Dictionaries accompanied their WOTY announcement with what they called the first-ever selfie, a 2002 image on an Australian Broadcasting Company discussion forum picturing the stitched-up lip of a student called “Hopey.” The Telegraph went so far as to claim that Hopey invented the term selfie, if not the selfie genre. But as Ben Zimmer reports, Hopey himself—aka Nathan Hope—told reporters who tracked him down that he was suprised at the sudden attention given to his post, since he didn’t coin the term and he wasn't the first to turn the camera on himself: by 2002 selfie was already common Australian slang for digital self-photography. (Other newsmaking selfies include those of former male politicians showing off their private parts, but no one’s gone so far as to accuse them of inventing indiscretion.) 

    Hopey's was not the first selfie after all

    Above: Selfie--briefly thought to be the first selfie--of Nathan Hope’s lips, stitched up in the ER after a fall. Below: Indiscreet selfie texted by former-politician Anthony Weiner to various women. Though his own name seemed appropriate, Weiner used the handle "Carlos Danger" online. Note: this is not a broken link—the graphic, represented by the traditional broken-image place-holder, cannot be shown on a family blog. 

    Image of broken image icon

    But if the word selfie is new, the urge to reproduce oneself artistically is not. The very earliest selfies may indeed have been digital, as we see from these Paleolithic handprints in the cave at El Castillo, in Spain.

    Paleolithic hands

    The first ‘digital’ selfies, old as art itself: Paleolithic handprints of the artists, in the cave of El Castillo, in Spain.

    Selfies don’t need to be two-dimensional. The image below shows a statue thought to have been carved by Bek, the official sculptor of the Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE), depicting the artist together with his wife, Taheret.

    Bek and Taheret

    Bek and Taheret ca 1340 BCE. Bek is also thought to have carved a relief selfie showing himself and Akhenaten, along with Bek’s father Men, also a sculptor, and Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, for whom Men worked..

    And you don’t have to be a politician to get in trouble for a selfie. The Greek sculptor Phidias (490-430 BCE) was briefly imprisoned for putting his own image—the indictment calls it an εαυτíςkός, an autiskos, or ‘selfie’—on the shield of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon (the original does not survive).

     Athena Parthenos, by Phidias (reconstruction)

    A reconstruction of Phidias' Athena Parthenos, a statue with a selfie which landed the sculptor in jail.

    Whatever the consequences, taking selfies can be habit forming. Albrecht Dürer drew the first of his four selfies in 1483, at age 13, and Rembrandt never tired of the genre, portraying himself many times over as a young artist and as a mature one.

    Albrecht Durer at age 13

     Above: The first of Dürer’s selfies; below, an early Rembrandt selfie.

    Rembrandt, early selfie

    Before photography, selfies required mirrors. In the 1930s, M. C. Escher—he of the drawing hand drawing the drawing hand—created a selfie in a reflecting sphere.

    M. C. Escher selfie

    In this self-referential "Triple Self-Portrait" (1960), Norman Rockwell uses a mirror to create his selfie (note that the mirror is a guide, not a control, for the artist: Rockwell, who surrounds his canvas with other famous selfies, keeps the pipe, but ditches the glasses).

    Norman Rockwell

    Robert Cornelius, a pioneer in American photography, may have taken the first photographic selfie in 1839. He did this not with a mirror, but simply by walking in front of the camera. It took several minutes for the image to register on a photosensitive plate, and Cornelius could walk quickly into and out of the frame without blurring the picture. Today's photographers must use a self-timer to delay tripping the shutter in order to take this kind of selfie.

    Robert Cornelius--first photo selfie

    A century later, another American photographer, Walker Evans, took a selfie in a style that looks much more familiar.

    Walker Evans selfie, 1930s

    Selfies reflect modern art’s self-reflection. René Magritte painted his famous “Son of Man” as a selfie, and now it’s available as a Halloween costume which can be donned for yet another selfie:

    Magritte, Son of Man self-portrait

    Above: Magritte’s “Son of Man” was painted as a selfie; below: Magritte Halloween costume as a selfie (it's done with mirrors).

    Magritte Halloween selfie

    And selfies can refer figuratively to other forms of artistic expression. If Oxford Dictionaries had chosen selfie as their Word of the Year for 1916, James Joyce would have used a different title for his first novel.

    Joyce's Selfie of the Artist

    Words of the year come and go. We still have blog and hashtag, but locavore and plutoed, not so much. Even though a few commentators see words like selfie signaling the decline of the English language, the history of art and my own meager contribution below argue that self-portraiture, whatever you want to call it, is not about to lose its appeal.

    Green bag

    Reflection, not in a mirror, but in a metal wall: a portrait of the artist, his wife, and a passerby with a green bag. At the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, England, April, 2012.

ajgottli@illinois.edu Nov 24, 2013 10:57 pm

I love how you put this contemporary trend into a much deeper historical perspective!  Once we have a new word for something, it's easy to imagine that the practice it describes is new too.  This post cures us of that sort of amnesia.


Treuberhaus@hotmail.com Dec 1, 2013 7:28 pm

What about the Shroud of Turin?

kristinlems@yahoo.com Dec 1, 2013 10:17 pm

But surely Frida Kahlo is the ultimate "selfie artist!"  A whole painting career built around her intense, unibrowed face for all to ponder...surely part of her late-developing fame is the fact that her selfies made it easy to identify who painted the painting! 

michaelt4two@gmail.com Dec 2, 2013 6:14 am
  • Rembrandt showed us a whole raft of aspects of himself.
  • Earlier, pace God, He created Man in His own image.
  • There's nothing new under the sun.

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