How To Talk About Art History

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Are Self Portraits and Selfies the Same Thing?

Image description: To the right is a painted self-portrait of Paul Gauguin, a French man with brown hair and a mustache. We can only see his head, shoulders and one arm, and in the background we can see a framed picture on the wall. He is holding his hand up to his chin in a thoughtful pose. On the left is a selfie of me taken with a webcam. I am mirroring Gauguin's pose by holding my hand up to my chin.

Right: Self-portrait (c. 1893), Paul Gauguin. Left: A selfie of me (2016).

Reader Question: “I have a question — I hear a lot of people say that those old fashioned portraits are the equivalent of selfies today, mostly in retaliation to people calling selfie-culture vain, frivolous, etc. What do you think?”

A lot has been written online regarding this subject. Selfies are, as you say, seen as vain, frivolous – in general, as ”low culture”. In retaliation, numerous people have argued that they actually have a lot in common with more traditional self portraits. I do agree with this; however, saying that selfies are simply the equivalent to self portraits actually downplays the uniqueness of selfies as an artistic medium. While the comparison makes a powerful point, there’s more to the situation.

Let’s start by defining exactly what a “selfie” is. It specifically refers to a photograph that you take of yourself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and often share with social media.

Image description: an old, sepia-toned photograph. A group of men in suits are standing in a group. We see them holding up a large, old-fashioned camera to take group selfie of themselves.

Byron Company photographers on the roof of Colonel Marceau’s studio (1920) unknown photographer, via the Museum of the City of New York

It would actually be a disservice to think that selfies are the exact same as self portraits. Selfies are their own genre and their own medium. They have their own techniques, visual language and meanings.  Selfies even have their own history – one which is over 150 years old. For as long as photography has existed, so have photographic self portraits.

Image description: An old, sepia-toned photograph. We see the photograph that was being taken in the previous photo. A group of men in suits are smiling and laughing into a camera.

Byron Company, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk (1920) via the Museum of the City of New York

There are distinct compositional differences between selfies and other types of self portraits. Selfies are taken at arms length or directly into a mirror. Meanwhile, self portraits are made using a picture, reflection or even memory as guide. The perspectives and angles in selfies are distinctive and recognisable, rarely present in self portraits. Selfie-takers make use of specific types of technology, such as smartphones, photo-editing apps, and pre-made filters. They disseminate their pieces on online social media networks that can reach an incredibly wide range of people while using very few economic resources.

Selfies are, of course, related to self portraits, but they are their own thing and should be studied as such. 

Image description: A photographic selfie. Two women are sitting together in a fast-food joint. They have their heads together and are smiling. One of them is holding up her phone to take a photograph of them in the mirror in front of them.

Selfie posted on Instagram as #adorablelesbiancouples © Ellen Oredsson, 2016

So, with these obvious differences between selfies and other types of self portraits, why do people make the comparison? 

It has to do with comparing the motivations behind the impulse to take a selfie or create/commission a portrait of yourself. Are selfies really more narcissistic than old fashioned portraits? From an art historical perspective, where we’ve been inundated with overly flattering portraits of rulers, monarchs, and other “important” figures, I think it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. We obviously can’t know the motivations of everyone who has ever taken a selfie or painted a self portrait, but we can use visual analysis to theorise about some of these motivations.

Image description: A 16th century European portrait in a realistic style. We see a full-length portrait of a man, standing in a very luxurious-looking room. His legs are spread apart and his pose emphasises his strength and masculinity. One hand reaches towards an ornate dagger at his waist. His clothes are highly decorated. He wears an array of jewellery including several large rings and a pair of necklaces. His large codpiece and heavily padded shoulders further enhance the masculinity of the image.

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

Many older commissioned portraits would emphasise positive qualities about the sitter. Most of these portraits were carefully constructed to portray the subject in just the right way. Take, for example, the famous Portrait of Henry VIII (1497 /98) by Hans Holbein the Younger. A lost work made famous through its many copies, it was commissioned by the King to hang in his main residence. He is painted to appear strong and majestic. His posture, reminiscent of a wrestler, is imposing, and he is adorned with sumptuous expensive clothing and an ornate dagger.

Evidence from sets of King Henry’s armour suggests that his legs were actually much shorter than depicted here. His likeness must therefore have been edited to make him appear more powerful. Although he didn’t have access to social media, King Henry also wanted to spread this portrait as far as he could, commissioning numerous other copies and distributing them to friends and ambassadors.

The argument then is that selfies are not more narcissistic, vain or frivolous than old fashioned portraits. In fact, they continue on in much the same tradition, just with different technology.

Image description: On the right is a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. It shows a woman with dark hair looking straight forward with a serious expression. We see only her head and shoulders. Behind her is a mass of green jungle leaves. Around her neck are thorny branches. They're digging into her neck and small drops of blood can be seen. A hummingbird body is hanging from the thorns. Behind her right shoulder we can see a black, cat-like creature. Behind her left shoulder is a black monkey holding the thorns. On her head is some sort of headpiece with butterflies and dragonflies flying around it. On the left of this portrait, we see a Japanese woodblock print image of an old man. We see his full body on a blank background. The man is dressed in loose robes and is holding a cane with both hands. He has a smile on his face.

Left: Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), Frida Kahlo. Right: Self-Portrait In The Age Of An Old Man (1760-1849), attributed to Katsushika Hokusai

Of course, many portraits and self portraits throughout art history explore more complex ideas of self and of identity than just ”I want to make myself look good”. Frida Kahlo’s self portraits were both a statement against Eurocentric beauty standards and an exploration of her own inner landscape. Katsushika Hokusai’s self portrait as an old man is humorous in its reflections on age, considering the artist’s self-assigned nickname as ”old man crazy about art”.

Can this same mixture – self-deprecation, self-glorification, self-exploration – be found in selfies? I’d answer with a resounding yes. Not only can both selfies and portraiture run the gamut from vain to complex, but selfies are doing it on a larger scale than ever before. They’re also doing it with a larger diversity of people than ever before.

Image description: a photographic selfie of a woman. The camera is held below her face, so she is staring down at the camera. Behind her we see a tall building. Her hair is short and pink.

Selfie. © Carolin Oredsson, 2016

The main similarity between selfies and self portraits is the individual’s control over their own image. The selfie allows people to represent themselves, rather than just be represented by professional artists. This is especially important for underrepresented and marginalised groups.

Image description: A photograph of a wall covered in paintings. Each painting shows a self portrait. We can see that all of the subjects in the self-portraits are white-passing men.

The self portraiture room in Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Sweden. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting the art museum in Göteborg, Sweden. The museum has a ”self portrait room” showcasing a collection of self portraits. I found it refreshing that, on the museum label, the curator actually pointed out that all of these self portraits happen to depict white men.

This is, of course, because in Western art history, white men have had the most control over their own image. A range of societal barriers throughout history means that, unless we specifically seek them out, we rarely see art historical self portraits from women, people of colour, disabled people, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, LGBTQ+ people, and a range of other oppressed groups.

Image description: a photographic selfie of a woman with dark hair. The woman is looking away from the camera. She is sitting in a car and wearing a covering over her head.

Selfie. © Farah Ahmed, 2014

Selfies are, arguably, changing that. They aren’t the first art form to do so -photography itself did the same, and self portraiture, as a whole, has provided room for marginalised people to represent themselves for thousands of years. But selfies are interacting with social media in new ways. They don’t only provide representations of people, but also insight into those people’s lives. And they have full control over those depictions.

While commissioned portraits used to be reserved to those with money to spare, and self portraits were made by those with the time and money to do so, selfies are created by a much wider range of people. In this way, they’re a new, exciting step in contemporary art history.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris

    It’s a wonderful assessment. It’s also a reflection that marginalisation itself is rapidly receding. A person with a smartphone, access to the internet and social media, and time not needed for subsistence activities and therefore available for self portraiture is illustrative. Twenty-five years ago neither I nor anyone I knew had an @ anything email address. At the same time, 40 percent of the world’s population lived in deep poverty; today, it’s less than 15 percent and there are few people on earth who don’t know anyone who has a smartphone.

    My own grandparents, born into deep poverty between 1888 and 1904, would probably have considered it a frivolous use of resources and time to sit for photographic portraits. No pictures exist of any of them until they were in their 40s and 50s, and their economic and lifestyle situations had changed from bare subsistence and the 7-day workweeks of their youths and young adulthoods.

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