The first photographic selfie can be traced back to Robert Cornelius, lamp manufacturer and metallurgist, who took a daguerreotype of himself in 1839. He is shown with tousled hair and a hand across his chest, which took over one minute to capture. This type of photography was expensive and time consuming. Imagine how many Imgur posts you could scan in one minute.
Society wouldn’t have to wait long to see an answer. In 1900, Kodak debuted the Brownie box camera and it was downhill from there. The Brownie was affordable and offered average Joes the opportunity to capture whatever they wanted on film. No, the promotion of one’s own ego was no longer contained to the upper echelons of society.
As camera technology increased, so too did demand for immediate satisfaction. While paintings could take months or years to complete, people wanted their photos now. Enter the development of the instant camera, often referred to as the Polaroid because the company produced the most popular ones.
The Polaroid allowed a user to snap a photo, and the image would be “printed” while the user waited. Given the bulky nature of the instant camera, along with its price point at $180 in the 1970s, it wasn’t necessarily affordable for the common man.
One celebrity who did take advantage of the Polaroid era was Stevie Nicks. The white witch wanted to learn photography, so she took selfies with her Polaroid. She could develop them instantly and change what she wanted, while learning about modeling, lighting, and composition at the same time.
Enter the technology era. Cellphones with decent cameras are practically free. Kim Kardashian can’t get enough of herself and is publishing a book of selfies titled Selfish. There is even a rom-com sitcom called Selfie and Stevie Nicks’ selfies are on display at a gallery. With the right spin, anything will sell.
Which is really what this entire selfie phenomenon comes down to: marketing. The royals used their paintings to market themselves, Artemisia Gentileschi did it to display her well-rounded education and Rembrandt used them to boast of his abilities. Yet, it is less about self-scrutiny and more about self-aggrandizement these days. Like little children on the playground, it’s all about “look at me,” whether or not the attention is warranted.
The common man or woman can feel equal to the House of Bourbon or the House of Gaga—at least superficially—without actually having to do anything of importance. Indeed, we have more in common with kings and queens of ages past than we think.