The Self-portrait to the Selfie

Self-image is a significant contributor to the way in which we represent ourselves. It is defined as, “the idea one has of one’s abilities, appearance, and personality. (Google)” Today one of the most notable forms of self-image is the iconic ‘selfie’. The selfie’s evolution from its predecessor, the self-portrait, serves as a timeline which documents how our representation of ourselves, through self-image, has developed over the years. Throughout this time considerable change is seen in control and accessibility surrounding self-image. Consequently, our self-representation has evolved in the way it communicates as form of visual culture.

Byron Company photographers on the roof of Colonel Marceau’s studio, 1920, film photo, via the Museum of the City of New York

Originally the self-portrait was, “…the preserve of a highly skilled few. (Mirzoeff 31)” In other words, artists were essentially the sole producers of portrait-based self-image because they were the only people who had the skills to do so. This meant that control over, and accessibility to, self-image was very limited. If you weren’t an artist, the only other way to access self-image was if you were rich enough to employ someone to paint your portrait for you. Even then your control over the way you were represented was in the hands of someone else. Control and accessibility over self-image was incredibly limited for many years, due to the few mediums through which it could be produced. However, the way we represent ourselves was significantly influenced in the 1800’s with the invention of photography. Self-image became more obtainable, and with more access came more control. Mirzoeff writes about ‘the heroic artist, (40)’’ a concept which emerged before photography, with early self-portraits. The formation of the ‘heroic artist’ changed the way we represent ourselves by infusing what Mirzoeff (33) refers to as ‘majesty’ into self-image. “Majesty does not sleep, get ill or become old,(Mirzoeff 36)” it is the visualization of one’s better, more superior self. Access and control over self-image continued to develop as a mode of individual representation alongside the technology used to produce self-portraits. Mirzoeff explains, “at each stage of the self-portrait’s expansion, more and more people have been able to depict themselves.(32)” Although the ‘selfie’ is commonly associated with the 21st century it has existed for around 100 years, as seen in the 1920’s image of Byron Company photographers on the roof of Colonel Marceau’s studio. However, the selfie did not significantly affect the way represent ourselves until 2010 when the IPhone 4 produced a decent quality front camera (Mirzoeff 63). Accessibility to self-image reached a new level; it was essentially at people’s fingertips and ready to use within seconds. Refined control also came with the modern day selfie. “It’s all you, there’s no professional photographer, there’s no editor, no curator… we have gotten rid of the artist as the intermediary and everyone is an artist. (Urbanski 2013)” Today apps such as snapchat and Instagram have made accessibility; to self-image and its distribution, and control; over what our self-image looks like and who gets to see it, far more refined. Ultimately, the way we represent ourselves has become a more personal and self-expressive form of visual culture as access and control over self-image has developed.

Portrait of Henry VIII (copy) (1536 – 1537), after Hans Holbein the Younger.

Today we hear ‘selfie’ and quite commonly associate it with narcissistic behaviour. Particularly older generations, see the selfie as a form of vanity. This is largely to do with the ties self-image has to the concept majesty and, therefore; self-glorification. Majesty was introduced, by Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, originating with the portraits of significant historical figures such as Henry VIII. The purpose of majesty was to depict, often royal figures, as superior versions of themselves to promote unquestionable strength and power. (Mirzoeff 33-37) However, our representation of ourselves has significantly developed over the years, as self-image has evolved as form of visual communication. The postmodern movement was one of the first instances where our representation of ourselves strived to convey a greater meaning. Duchamp’s self-portraits in 1917 demonstrate how people began to use self-image as a way to explore their identity. Mirzoeff writes, “Duchamp did not see himself as one but many selves,(50)” which he essentially explored through his self-portraits. The way we represent ourselves adopted this notion and has become not only a way of displaying ourselves but also analysing and understanding ourselves. Who am I? And who could I become? The internal conversation we have with ourselves surrounding identity, and answering these questions, is one that has slowly become more external as self-image has developed as a form of communication. Today our investigation into identity is, fundamentally, an external conversation we have with other people. Through apps such as snapchat we use self-image to not only portray who we are, but communicate where we are, what we are doing and why. “Visual images are dense with information allowing successful performance to convey much more than the basic text message…(Mirzoeff 68) This exemplifies that the selfie is far more than a selfish indulgence into self-glorification, it is now a fully functioning form of communication. James Franco, commonly referred to as the selfie king, reinforces this concept when stating that selfies are, “… tools of communication more than marks of vanity… (Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie 2014)“ In the modern day our representation of ourselves has expanded to become a world-wide conversation.

Self-image has always been about expressing our own ideas surrounding who we are; however, today we are able to do this on a far greater scale than ever before. In light of the developments that have taken place surrounding access and control, our representation of ourselves has become, less the product of other people and a more accurate illustration of who we feel we are. The ideas communicated through our representation of ourselves are less about vanity and more about “…the new global majority’s conversation with itself. (Mirzoeff 69)”


Works Cited

Google definitions.….0…1c..64.serp..

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World. Penguin Random House, 2015.

Oredsson, Ellen. Portrait of Henry VIII (copy) (1536 – 1537), after Hans Holbein the Younger. Paint,

Saltz, Jerry. “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” Vulture, 26 Jan 2014,

Urbanski, Elizabeth. “Selfies – a visual analysis: Elizabeth Urbanski at TEDxNavesink.” Youtube, TEDx Talks, 16 Nov 2013,


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