Selfies: a non-definitive history of humanity’s obsession with itself

Human beings have always been fascinated by themselves; collectively, as individuals, and personally. If not, why would there be such a glut of self-help books, DVDs, and “experts”. If not for self-interest we wouldn’t have so many psychiatrists and psychologists. If we weren’t fascinated with every aspect of ourselves there would be no beauty industry!

But we are; totally, completely, utterly self-absorbed.

“Selfies” aren’t a modern fad – here one day and gone the next. We’ve been leaving behind selfies for millennia. Little bits of ourselves that state, “I was here” and “I existed”.

The earliest known selfie (that is the earliest I know) was found on a cave wall somewhere in Europe. There are examples in Australia as well. Of course, I’m talking about the hand-print created by spitting paint over the hand while held against the rock. Amid drawings of animals and assorted strange creatures, the hand-print stands out as a bold statement of presence.

France - along time ago. Missing digit could be part of a ritual or could just be a missing digit...

France – along time ago. Missing digit could be part of a ritual or could just be a missing digit…

Australian cave hands

Australian cave hands

Anasazi handprints created by dipping hands in paint rather than spitting or blowing

Anasazi handprints created by dipping hands in paint rather than spitting or blowing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, human-kind learned how to draw faces and paint reasonable likenesses. Portraiture became a form of art in its own right and people started paying for the privilege. Portraits became symbols of power and artists went up a notch or two in status. This led to self-portraits (much more hygienic that paint spitting) by artists who knew that wealthy patrons might ditch them on a whim, and they too needed to say, “I was here”.

Earliest known portraits came from Ancient Egypt. This one is a Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a young boy

Earliest known portraits came from Ancient Egypt. This one is a Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a young boy

With the invention and spread of photography, portraiture became available to the masses. Now, people passed around photos of themselves at the beach, in a park, or sitting on the back of wagon with a bunch of besties. Even more important, they could now have the portrait printed as a photograph, which they could then turn into a painting of themselves (it was a little hard to take selfies with the early cameras).

Earliest photographs: Robert Cornelius, 1839.

Earliest photographs: Robert Cornelius, 1839.

Earliest photographs: Louis Daguerre 1844. Developer of the daguerrotype

Earliest photographs: Louis Daguerre 1844. Developer of the daguerrotype

As cameras became cheaper and smaller, and film developing cheaper and easier, the slow proliferation of selfies started to take hold. Granted, they often cut half their own head off because there was only one lens pointing in one direction and they couldn’t see themselves when they pressed the shutter, but they were on their way. Tripods and self-timers grew in popularity. Still a lot of guesswork, but with practice a good selfie was achievable. It took a week to find out how good, but waiting for your photographs to be developed was being streamlined and would time would be reduced from seven days to only two and then one within a few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you had a Polaroid camera, you could see your wonderful (or not so wonderful) shots within minutes, but these were expensive in the early years and bulky.

Andy Warhol self portrait with Polaroid camera c 1971

Andy Warhol self portrait with Polaroid camera c 1971

And then along came Jones(reference has nothing whatsoever to do with photography) or rather, mobile phones that could also take pictures. What wonderfully handy gadgets these proved to be. From that moment the selfie blossomed into the often narcissistic trend it is today. It has its uses though. For instance, taking a quick pic of yourself in a dress you’re considering buying but you need the opinion of all your friends first. For those dreaded before shots and celebratory after shots (before/after the party where you drank yourself into oblivion or before/after your 12 week gym/diet program…. you get the picture, right?). Now that smartphones and a lot of digital cameras give you the option of “turning the lens around”, you can even avoid cutting half your head off!

Me! Selfie for Twitter profile

 

Images were sourced from these places:

Handprints in Australia and France – The Bradshaw Foundation

Anasazi handprints – Rock Art Pages

Roman Egyptian Funeral Portrait

Earliest photographic portraits – Robert Cornelius & Louis Daguerre

Polaroid Selfie – Andy Warhol

Me!

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2 thoughts on “Selfies: a non-definitive history of humanity’s obsession with itself

  1. Great post, Patricia! I would love to hear more. It’s true the extensions of self-interest are varied. There’s narcissism, add in egoism: psychological, individual and rational. Let’s not forget the philosophical systems too. I’m sure there are more. It’s true the selfie has blossomed indeed. I guess some may look at this phenomenon as a time of self-appreciation, a chance to celebrate their identity, and take their place in the world of today. After all most selfies of today will end up just like those cave hands only as a virtual mark. But there is that side of self-interest today that can have a potential undercurrent towards a narcissistic trend.
    On a fun note: I would like to try paint spitting, and not through a straw either 😉

    • Thanks for dropping by Vacen. I really like the idea of today’s “selfie” being tomorrow’s stencilled hand-print on a virtual cave wall. I think we’re all trying to find a way of leaving behind an imprint of ourselves. Whether it’s a hand-print or an Instagram selfie, it’s a way of reaching out from the crowd of humanity to assert a basic level of individuality (even when everyone is doing it).

      A selfie from the past does have some degree of power. I visited a lot of Ancient Pueobloan art sites when I was in New Mexico & Colorado a few years ago. If you stand close to them, block out anyone else who’s with you, listen to nature, and crack open the the internal “doors of perception”, you can feel the presence of the people who created the art… especially the hand-prints.

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