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Non-Definitive History: Selfies - humanity's obsession with itself!

Human beings have always been fascinated by themselves; collectively, as individuals, and personally. If not, why would there be such a glut of self-help books, DVDs, and “experts”? If not for self-interest, we wouldn’t have so many psychiatrists and psychologists. And, if we weren’t so fascinated with every aspect of ourselves, there would be no beauty industry!

But we are; totally, completely, utterly self-absorbed.

“Selfies” aren’t a modern fad—here one day and gone the next. We’ve been leaving behind selfies for millennia. Little bits of ourselves that state, “I was here” and “I existed”.

The earliest known selfie (that is the earliest I know) is on a cave wall somewhere in Europe. There are examples in Australia as well. Of course, I’m talking about the hand-print created by spitting paint over the hand while held against the rock. Amid drawings of animals and assorted strange creatures, the hand-print stands out as a bold statement of presence.

France—a long time ago. Missing digit could be part of a ritual or could just be a missing digit…

Australian cave hands

Anasazi handprints created by dipping hands in paint rather than spitting or blowing.

Image source: Rock Art Pages

Eventually, human-kind learned how to draw faces and paint reasonable likenesses. Portraiture became an art form in its own right and people started paying for the privilege. Portraits became symbols of power and artists went up a notch or two in status. This led to self-portraits (much more hygienic that paint spitting) by artists who knew that wealthy patrons might ditch them on a whim, and they too needed to say, “I was here”.

Earliest known portraits came from Ancient Egypt.

This one is a Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a young boy.

With the invention and spread of photography, portraiture became available to the masses. Now, people could pass around photos of themselves at the beach, in a park, or sitting on the back of a wagon with a bunch of besties. Even more important, they could now have the portrait printed as a photograph, which they could then turn into a painting of themselves (it was a little hard to take selfies with the early cameras).

Earliest photographs: Robert Cornelius, 1839.

Earliest photographs: Louis Daguerre 1844. Developer of the daguerreotype.

As cameras became cheaper and smaller, and film developing cheaper and easier, the slow proliferation of selfies took hold. They often cut half their own head off because there was only one lens pointing in one direction and they couldn’t see themselves when they pressed the shutter, but they were on their way. Tripods and self-timers grew in popularity. Still a lot of guesswork, but with practice a good selfie was achievable. It took a week to find out how good, but waiting for your photographs to be developed was being streamlined and would reduce from seven days to only two and then one within a few years.

If you had a Polaroid camera, you could see your wonderful (or not so wonderful) shots within minutes, but these were expensive in the early years and bulky.

Andy Warhol self portrait with Polaroid camera c 1971

Image source:

And then along came Jones(reference has nothing whatsoever to do with photography) or rather, mobile phones that could also take pictures. What wonderfully handy gadgets these proved to be. From that moment the selfie blossomed into the often narcissistic trend it is today. It has its uses though. For instance, taking a quick pic of yourself in a dress you’re considering buying but you need the opinion of all your friends first. For those dreaded before shots and celebratory after shots (before/after the party where you drank yourself into oblivion or before/after your 12 week gym/diet program…. you get the picture, right?). Now that smartphones and a lot of digital cameras give you the option of “turning the lens around”, you can even avoid cutting half your head off!

Me! Selfie for previous Twitter profile

This article first appeared in June 2013 on my previous wordpress site as Selfies: a non-definitive history of humanity’s obsession with itself


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