8 March 2016

The Art of the Selfie

The selfie - in all its infectious and often carefully contrived glory - has exploded, holding planet Earth and all of us that inhabit it victim. From the ashes, a booming industry of gadgets and gismos has arisen, from editing apps to selfie sticks, helping us to present an enhanced version of ourselves that we are more than happy to share with the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat… whatever your vice, its likely to contain several pictures of yourself, known commonly as “selfies”. It was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year” in 2013 and they currently make up as much as 30% of all photos taken by people aged 18-24. We’ve certainly all seen them and we have most likely all taken one at some point, as after all, it is one of the easiest images to capture. 

Complimented by the rise of social media and the influence of Generation Z, the art of the selfie appears to be a recently modern phenomenon. It in fact dates back to as early as 1839, spearheaded by American photographer, Robert Cornelius. He produced a daguerreotype of himself by removing the lens cap of his camera, frantically running to get into the shot, waiting until the shot was complete and proceeding to run back to adjust the lens cap and avoid overexposure; a world away from the simple tap of a screen. Techniques of course evolved over time and in 1914, one of the first “mirror pics” was taken. Then 13-year-old Anastasia Nikolaevna, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II captured a photo of her reflection in a wardrobe mirror and sent this to a friend in a letter.

Self-portraiture is a sturdy tree with roots shooting through the soil, to which the selfie is a mere branch. Self-portraits have been explored and practiced by artists since the Renaissance so both are considered to have dynamically differing definitions and intentions. While you may post a selfie via a social media platform to show off a new haircut or make your ex jealous if you find spot-on lighting, a self-portrait isn’t always as simple. Artistic skill, plenty of effort, underlying meaning and emotive agenda: often through the medium of paint, drawing or sculpture, are core elements of a self-portrait in the traditional sense. On a similar level of intent, a selfie may stand as a modest message, perhaps showing a reassuring smile in times of illness or celebrating a specific moment with a friend that can never, ever be recreated.

The exhibition coming to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this July, Facing the World, looks at the rudimentary role of self-portraits and the presentation of the self, whether relentless and unforgiving or perfected and flattering. From the cutting gaze of Rembrandt, who painted more self portraits than any other artist of the 17th century, to Ai Weiwei’s Instagram images; complete with bright orange bicycle-shaped glasses and underwear selfies captured through a toilet flush. With around 140 works on display, the exhibition brings together paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, time-based media, sculpture and interactive installations.

Celebrity culture could be said to have greatly aided the selfie’s acceptance into the mainstream. The most noteworthy being a cosy huddle of Hollywood royalty, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Kevin Spacey among others. Snapped at The Oscars 2014, the image has become the most retweeted image on Twitter ever, bypassing President Obama who formerly held the record. Parodies sprung off the end of it, here there and everywhere, confirming the presence of the selfie to those few who somehow were not already aware of its existence and mounting communicative powers.

You may consider it a narcissistic, self-indulgent action of now-questionable originality, or you may consider it a candid way to share what you’re doing with others and capture specific moments in time. Despite the annoyance of getting bashed in the head with one of the multiple selfie sticks hovering around the underbelly of the Eiffel Tower (or any attraction for that matter) it’s a frill we love to hate. Equally, the pressure of finding the right filters and coming up with a caption that’s the right amount funny, right amount relevant is at times testing. Not to mention having to explain multiple times to older relatives at family gatherings that you need to turn the front camera on first. Having already conquered space and with the Queen known to feature in one or two, something to perhaps consider is how much the selfie will evolve to ensure that it consistently revels in relevancy. Still its pizzazz has endured for centuries in varying forms and shows no signs of slowing down.