Selfies and The Craze of Self-Photography

A few weeks ago, General Colin L. Powell created an overnight Internet sensation by posting an image of himself, taken in the 1950s.  The image, capturing the young and dapper Powell in black-and-white, was a direct response to the “selfie” taken by Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Oscars.  General Powell boldly proclaimed that he “was doing selfies 60 years before you Facebook folks,” and told Ellen to “eat her heart out.”

Colin Powell 60 years ago. Courtesy General Colin L. Powell.

Colin Powell 60 years ago. Courtesy General Colin L. Powell.

Besides General Powell’s Facebook post, Ellen’s selfie drew the attention of President Obama.  The President, appearing on Ellen’s talk show, seemed a bit sore that the star-filled Oscar photo drew more Twitter retweets than his selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, taken at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.  The President’s dig at Ellen has taken the media by storm, but has also sparked criticism of today’s culture.

President Obama and Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt pose for a selfie.  Courtesy Getty Images.

President Obama and Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt pose for a selfie. Courtesy Getty Images.

The modern “selfie” culture is, according to some, a sign of increasing narcissism.  While psychologists bicker about the exact nature of this ballooning cultural self-importance, it seems that selfie culture is not slowing down.  Applications like Snapchat actually encourage selfies as a form of virtual interpersonal communication.

What’s important to remember in all of this, and what has been lost in the current discussions on selfies in both the academic and public spheres, is that selfies are nothing new.  In fact, our fascination with photography and the photographic self-portrait traces its roots back to the advent of the camera.

Early photography, much like early computer science or telecommunications, was more for professionals, scientists, and hobbyists.  However, once the camera became more publicly accessible, people began photographing their everyday life.  The concept of capturing an image of the present that could be shared in the future was fascinating, and thus drew a lot of attention.  Self-portrait photography, or what we now call “selfies,” was an early development in the photographic genre.

A circa 1900 "selfie."  Courtesy

A circa 1900 “selfie.” Courtesy

Individuals from all walks of life were interested in taking self portraits in photographic form, combining the technological wonder of the camera with the natural human interest in the self.  Cameras captured and preserved what mirrors reflected: cultural views on beauty, fashion, and the self.

Grand Dutchess Anastasia, circa 1913.  Courtesy @HistoricalPics

Grand Dutchess Anastasia, circa 1913. Courtesy @HistoricalPics

Calling selfies new, and claiming that they are a symptom of the increasing narcissism, is misinformed.  The technological boom of the last 30 years has given individuals from all walks of life the ability to indulge in many activities once only accessible to the elite.  Cheap cell phones with front-facing cameras have made the selfie a cultural phenomenon, expanding the genre out of its otherwise archaic roots. However, it certainly is not something new to our time.  General Powell may have been doing selfies before Ellen DeGeneres, but Grand Dutchess Anastasia was doing it before Powell was even born.  So the next time you smile for a selfie, remember the generations before you that did the same thing (using slightly larger equipment, of course)!

What do you think?  Do “selfies” reflect increased narcissism?  How does technology play a role in cultural expression?

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