Lomo In-Depth: Is Selfie Culture Harming the Tradition of Self-Portraiture?


The selfie was once a mere tool for verification of identity during the infant days of virtual reality. Back then, it was rare for many to have a ".jpeg" image since smartphones were yet to be polished for easy transfer. Of course, smartphone pioneers (such as Apple) have successfully realized this over the time -- a phone capable of taking high quality photographs -- hence creating a benchmark for the mobile phone industry.

And as more brands and businesses entered the industry, the competition resulted to a proliferation of selfies: in a recent report, there are about a million of selfies being uploaded online daily.

So how does the selfie affect the art of self-portraiture, which was being practiced in art for centuries now? Find out with this quick write-up.

The historical transition

Even before the smartphone, people have always been fascinated in imitating almost anything in life -- including themselves. Much like most techniques in photography which are borrowed from other art forms (especially from painting), it is fair to say that the concept of the selfie stemmed from the long tradition of self-portraiture in art history.

First photographic portrait of a human, Robert Cornelius from Wikimedia Commons

In photography, a 19th century pioneer named Robert Cornelius is said to be the first man to have taken a selfie. The BBC wrote:

"The first self-portrait photograph is thought to have been taken by camera pioneer Robert Cornelius in 1839, but whether or not it's a true "selfie" is debatable.
"It's likely he may have had a friend or assistant to make the actual exposure," says Dr Michael Pritchard, historian and director general of the Royal Photographic Society.
"It's more likely the first 'selfies' were taken a bit later on. The first shutters with self-timers were available as early as the late 1880s, and allowed five or ten seconds for the subject to get into shot."

In terms of sharing selfies in social media, the behavior is not radical in photography. The cartes de visites in the 1860's were treated as such -- sharing and trading one photograph for another.

The selfie vs. the self-portrait in art

Credits: phaliyp & mephisto19

Many confuse the selfie to be automatically an artistic manifestation of the self-portrait. Thus, many are now frowning upon the modern practice of self-portraiture due to the new mode of taking one -- which is through the selfie.

In art, how self-portraiture is used varied from movement to movement. Frances Spalding from The Guardian argued that self-portraiture flourished as a mirror for self-scrutiny during the middle ages, then became a mode for the 'heroisation' of the artist in the Renaissance. Despite contextual differences, the self-portrait being pertained in art history contains more decisions and is more carefully composed. The self-portrait was a mode to give an in-depth look of the person's soul.

On the other hand, the selfie, while it can become a 'self-portrait' itself, does not automatically mean that it is. Marie McGrory wrote in the National Geographic:

"Self-portraits are not selfies. They are beautiful and revealing. The good ones are extremely difficult to make. After sifting through thousands of these images, I was astounded to see that the final edit was, essentially, faceless. I didn’t need to see someone’s face to learn about their essence."

Selfie, the new mode: perceiving the modern art of self-portraiture

Credits: yonosoydeaqui

The Getty Museum wrote how dangerous it is for perceivers to automatically assume the selfie as fine art self-portraiture:

"Self-portraits are created to be read as art, are displayed in museums or galleries, and we are granted permission to view them as texts, functioning independently from the intent of the artist. Selfies are borne of vernacular photography practices and are brought into museums and galleries by visitors. It is perilous to read selfies in the same way as art, to ignore the context of their social interaction and the intent of the selfie-taker. It is important to remember these images are shared as part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way. We are allowed to leave these elements out of our reading of artist’s self-portraits."

It is no surprise that many frown upon today's selfie culture, often being lambasted and criticized in online articles as they are often deemed as by-products of narcissism. Like it or not, the selfie is the new mode of self-portraiture, despite it steering away from the traditional concept of the self-portrait. For the uninformed artist and photographer, one can confuse selfie and self-portrait as one.

So, for all the conscious artists and photographers out there: better think twice in hitting the shutter button. Strive to make every image you create be of aesthetic value.

written by Ciel Hernandez on 2016-05-29 #culture #self-portrait #selfie #self-portraiture #lomo-in-depth


  1. crismiranda
    crismiranda ·

    Nice article!

  2. milicat
    milicat ·

    This makes me feel less guilty for being obsessed with film selfies :)

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