The Selfie: the instant self-portrait

Dec 12, 2018 by Coline Olsina

Since its introduction in the dictionary in 2013, the word "selfie" has never been so present in our everyday vocabulary. Practiced daily by thousands of people, selfies pop up every day on the walls of our Facebook and Instagram accounts. A real worldwide phenomenon, it was soon identified by the press and image specialists as the most representative photographic practice of contemporary visual expression in the words of André Gunthert (researcher and professor at EHESS).

hannah starkey selfie

© Hannah Starkey

What is a selfie?  

If the word "selfie" is specific to the 21st century, its use is not new. From the very beginning of photography, the photographer expresses the need to appear on this famous shot as well. The invention of the timer in 1902 allowed him to be immortalized beside his comrades or to witness to a picturesque scene, proudly posing in front of a landscape or a monument. Explored by both artists and amateurs alike, the self-portrait has spanned the entire history of photography and constitutes an essential part of its iconography.

However, the selfie should not be confused with the self-portrait. If in principle, the two practices are identical - photographing oneself - they remain radically different. Carefully composed, the self-portrait is often realised alone and underlines the narcissistic character of the author who wishes to preserve his image. The attention paid to composition, framing and light make it a contemplative object that is intended to last for centuries, thanks in particular to the durability of its support (glass, metal, paper).

The selfie, for its part, is ephemeral. Practiced alone or with family and friends, it aims to bear witness of a moment and an experience and is therefore shared on social networks: the selfie is interactive and inaugurates the concept of "connected photography".

Indeed, it invites to create a dialogue between the author of the selfie and his recipient. Whether addressed to a community (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter...) or a person (MMS, Messenger), the self-portrait 2.0 evokes the response, the commentary and - as much as possible - the "likes".  

More than a fashion phenomenon, selfie is part of our daily life, transforming its use into a common practice. Until a few years ago, it was necessary to use a device (the mirror for example) or to be agile (turning the camera round) to make a selfie. Today, the smartphone industry has adapted to this new habit and mobile phones are now all equipped with a front camera. The selfie is therefore marked by a strong aesthetic signature: that of the amateur. Taken on the spot, the selfie is often characterised by uncertain framing, visible signs of manipulation and the spontaneity of the shot, thus giving it all its freshness. Because it is easy to make and thanks to its potentially viral nature, selfie is a true source of inspiration and can be practiced in all circumstances: at work, on holiday, in transport, during a show or an extreme sport.

ai weiwei selfie

© Ai Weiwei

The Selfie, a contemporary art

Because it is now firmly integrated into the vocabulary of contemporary photography and the symbol of a whole generation, it is an exciting study subject for many artists who explore the plurality of its uses and stakes.

Among them, the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has distinguished himself through his militant and provocative use of selfie, which constitutes for him a formidable communication tool to denounce the abuses of the Chinese regime. The famous selfie of the artist at the time of his arrest in 2011 thus lies at the limit of artistic performance and buzz. Ai Wei Wei practices a total art, inseparable from his life and convictions: he therefore does not hesitate to use this form of popular expression to feed his work and lead his fight, thus giving it an ever greater impact.

martin parr selfie

© Martin Parr

If some artists consider selfie as a militant act, it is above all explored by a number of them as a vernacular object, emblematic of our current lifestyles and especially of our way of travelling. Fascinated by the "tourist" selfie, Martin Parr did not fail to represent it, amusing himself with the ridiculous and frozen poses of their authors.

paula abalos selfie

© Paula Abalos

In the same way, the artist Paula Abalos realised a video on selfies made in museums. Playing with the contrast between an institutional setting and the sometimes superficial attitudes of the protagonists, she juxtaposes two modes of representation: that of the works on display and that of the visitors who expose themselves to the world. More recently, the photographs of Luisa Dorr and Navin Kala illustrate this phenomenon with tenderness and aesthetics in a series shot in Hong Kong Bay.

luisa dorr navin kala

© Luisa Dorr & Navin Kala

Cindy Sherman, a superstar of contemporary art and an essential figure in self-portrait photography, was also quick to explore the plastic possibilities. On her Instagram account, followed by more than 220,000 subscribers, the artist exhibits a fantastic gallery of selfies. Testing all the retouching tools offered by the application, Cindy Sherman metamorphoses in every possible way, showing portraits that are sometimes burlesque and sometimes monstrous.

cindy sherman instagram

© Cindy Sherman

In another genre, the selfies stolen from Instagram and exhibited by artist Richard Prince at the Gagosian Gallery question the status and accessibility of these images broadcast on public platforms.

rob mc keever gagosian gallery

© Rob Mc Keever / Gagosian Gallery

All these artists underline the incredible expansion of this phenomenon, which has now completely integrated our visual culture, as shown by recent film posters (Mustang) or advertising campaigns (Samsung). In addition to the many exhibitions devoted to it ("Self-portraits, from Rembrandt to selfie", "From Selfie to Self-expression") - for which it is a formidable selling point - a museum is now dedicated to it in Los Angeles (The Museum of Selfie), once again testifying of the fascination it arouses.

mustang cover

© Ad Vitam

samsung selfies

© Samsung

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