Selfie or Self Portrait

In 1548 Catharina van Hemessen painted herself at her easel, a painting remarkable only because it is considered to be the oldest surviving self portrait of an artist at work (1). The subject of “me by me, doing what I do” appears to have been mildly interesting to artists for the next four hundred odd years before becoming more popular, or at least more common, after the camera was invented (i). Susan Bright (2) talks of the photographic compulsion to capture ourselves and argues that the photographer who can claim abstinence is a rarity; the 664 million self portraits on Instagram attests to the validity of this argument. (ii) Ms. van Hemessen started quite a trend.

Instagram Self Portraits

Appropriated Instagram Self Portraits grabbed from the endless stream being posted on-line at a rate of 250 a minute

The internet tsunami of published self portraits can easily be dismissed as self indulgent, self centred, attention seeking, artless narcism or even self-voyeuristic and therefore beneath the attention of the serious student of photography. Surely my self portraits are part of a great art tradition, comparable with Stieglitz, Friedlander or Sherman; serious, and of course artistic, explorations of the post modern concept of self as a subject or a sociopolitical statement on the discourses of society?

Gillian Wearing, an artist not immune from self portraiture (see essay on masquerades here), is quoted as saying “The word ‘selfie’ is brilliant. It really encapsulates a time: instant, quick, funny. It sounds ironic and throwaway.” (4) Wearing is highlighting that selfies are a genre totally in tune with modern society; instant, easy and momentary, photography distilled to its very essence, a photo of me flashed up for an instant before being swamped by the endless river of other little electronic images that flood onto the internet. But by posting a selfie I become part of the 700 million, I must be real, my photo is on-line, little me has connected with the world.

To discuss self-portrait, whether it be Stieglitz or Friedlander, Wearing or Sherman, we ultimately discuss identity; artists have recorded themselves for millennium, from cave painters to conceptual artists, recording themselves because they had the skills to do so and asking, in some way or another, where and how do I fit into this world?  The phone-camera and the internet came together to make the process democratic but in deskilling photography has it made the selfie less meaningful, less valid than, say, Vivian Maier’s self portraits which have attracted so much attention or should the art world claim exclusivity over the term self portrait to keep clear water between the proletarian selfie and the elite self portrait?

For the student creating a self portrait series, the question becomes personal. With nearly 700 million (iii) selfies already out there what differentiates the 700 million, the “serious” artist photographer and me?

Sue Davies, the founder of the Photographer’s Gallery (9) writing in 1977 (10), talked of how we can approach photography in order to understand it. She focusses in on two words: attention and awareness. Through their artistic awareness the photographer  “illuminates and vivifies” the mechanical process of taking a photograph and the viewer applies their whole attention to understanding and thereby connecting with the photographer’s meaning via the image. She argues that the viewer needs to learn how to look in the same way that we need to learn how to listen to great music and this analogy might work to define the difference between the 700 million and the work of Stieglitz; if Stieglitz is jazz then the 700 million are euro pop; the Instagram selfie is not necessary bad, some have comparatively high production values, but by their very nature they are designed for immediate consumption, instant understanding and gratification; they need no explanation, no complex analysis, just enjoy looking at me for a few seconds before moving on to the next. On the other hand Stieglitz, in Davies’ terms, has illuminated and vivified the process, in Shadows on a Lake 1918 (11), there are multiple layers of visual complexity, an intent to explore abstraction, reality and the relationship between reflection and shadow, pure jazz.

The post modern argument would be that context differentiates the three corners of the artist – student – Instagram triangle. Friedlander’s work is in galleries and collectable photo books and therefore Art, students’ work is to be taken seriously, in the sense that the audience is expected to keep a straight face whilst seeking its meaning because like “Art” the art student’s work must have a meaning, and then we have the 700 million which are social media mass collections so neither Art nor to be taken seriously. However, if you categorise only on context, the photograph’s nature can change. Nicky Bird showed in her Question for Seller (5) series that unwanted family snaps purchased on eBay can be sold at auction as Art, the artist having changed their context and their very nature by moving them from the top of someone’s wardrobe via eBay and her studio to the gallery and auction room; she gave them a value and status that the original photographer would not have intended or anticipated. Another example of this mystical ability to change the nature (and of course value) of a photograph  can be found in Richard Prince, famous for Cowboy (6) his appropriation of the Marlboro advert which was the first photograph to sell for more than a million dollars (iv), and who has attracted much controversy with his appropriation of Instagram photos which he enlarges and sells for up to $100,000 a time (8).

The two ideas, photographic Art is defined by the awareness and intent of the artist or photographic Art is defined by its context, have great credibility and even work together to some degree but like most theories of art they begin to fray at the edges when you seek examples. Logically if the Instagram photographer can provide evidence of awareness and artistic intent they should be taken seriously as Art; if the Instagram photograph is screen shot from the web and framed in a gallery it has become Art. Therefore, as most photographers have some intent and any of the 700 million can be screen shot and subsequently framed, it appears they are as much Art as Stieglitz’s Shadows on a Lake. Conversely Stieglitz’s image probably becomes a selfie. Which leaves me with the thought that Catharina van Hemessen captured the first selfie and started a trend that has lasted for nearly five hundred years and that there is no real differentiation between the 700 million and my series so I have spent the last month capturing selfies.

Notes on Text

(i) I am arguing that any photographic self portrait is by definition a picture of the artist at work as they have obviously taken the picture.

(ii) Hastag #me resulted in 377 million hits on 9th June and 378 million just 72 hours later. In addition to #me as of the 11th June there are 3 million #selfportrait and 283 million #selfie. A grand total of over 664 million. Instagram launched in October 2010 so these have been added a rate of around 400,000 a day.

(iii) Obviously the “nearly 700 million” statement is wildly inaccurate as my brief study was of Instagram. It no doubt exceeds a billion by the time you add Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and etc. even after you have deducted the pictures of people’s goldfish, cars, lunch and the other stranger items with the hashtag me. 

(iv) Now, by the way, languishing in 12th place at a mere $1,248,000 with Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II topping the list at $4,338,500. (7)



(2) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson

(3) Friedlander, Lee (2005) Self Portrait: Photographs by Lee Friedlander. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(10) Davies, Sue (1977) Reading Photographs (Originally published in the UK as Concerning Photography: Some Thoughts on Reading Photographs, the Catalogue of an Exhibition held at The Photographers Gallery July – August 1977). USA: Pantheon


(1) Kleiner, Fred S. (2005) Gardner’s Art Through The Ages: A global History, Fourteenth Edition, Volume II. Boston: Wadsworth (accessed at Google Books 10.6.15) –

(4) Freedland, Jonathan (2013) The selfie’s screaming narcissism masks an urge to connect (accessed at The Guardian 11.6.15) –

(5) Bird, Nicky – Artist’s website (accessed 11.1.15) –

(6) Prince, Richard (1989) Cowboy (accessed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art 12.6.15) –

(7) List of most expensive photographs (accessed at Wikipedia 12.6.15) –

(8) Steadman, Ryan (2015) Suicide Girls Sell Pics of Richard Prince Pics in Appropriation Tit for Tat (accessed at The Observer 12.6.15) –

(9) The Photographers’ Gallery. History of the Gallery. (accessed at The Photographers Gallery 12.6.15) –

(11) Stieglitz, Alfred (1918) Shadows on a Lake (accessed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art 12.6.15) –

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