A History of the Selfie

Think selfies are new? Think again. They’ve been around longer than you have.

By Elizabeth Enochs on March 12, 2015

The “selfie” or self-portrait craze has become such a huge part of mainstream culture that even serious public figures, such as Pope Francis and President Barack Obama, have jumped onboard the selfie train. The term hit buzzword status in 2012 (though it had definitely been used before then), and was added to OxfordDictionaries.com in August of 2013. While the selfie has received its fair share of disapproval from those who claim it’s an ego-fueling tool for an increasingly narcissistic society, others tend to think that the selfie grew into popularity from an innocent, and very human, longing for connection.

Whichever selfie camp you find yourself in, it’s important to remember that the selfie really isn’t such a new practice. Robert Cornelius snapped the first self-portrait (that we know of) in 1839 with a daguerreotype. That’s right—selfies predate the American Civil War.

The smartphone generation has undoubtedly boosted the selfie’s popularity, but people have been taking selfies for decades. If you’ve ever taken a selfie, and you probably have, then you should know the history of this photo-sharing phenomenon. Below are just a few stages of the evolution of the modern selfie. 

The Instant Camera Selfie  

Anyone who has ever participated in the joyous experience of taking an instant camera selfie knows it’s a uniquely fun ritual that is unlike any other. Although the device’s prime spanned from the 1960s to the 1980s, it was actually invented in 1948. This means even the “Greatest Generation” had the ability to take instant camera selfies. The quality and convenience of modern-style smartphone selfies are undeniable, but there’s something special about the instant camera version that deserves recognition.

The Digital Camera Selfie

Technically, the first-ever digital camera was released in 1975, but digital cameras as we know them today (lightweight, 4 megapixels or more, small enough to fit in one hand, etc.) really became popular in the mid-2000s. For the first time ever, everyone who could afford a digital camera could take a photo of themselves and see the results in seconds. If they didn’t like those results, one push of a button could make room for more attempts.

The digital camera also made photo editing and sharing easier than it had ever been. Digital camera owners could upload their photos to their computers, fix red eyes, play with contrast and turn color into black and white before showing their photos to anyone else. No film meant little-to-no fuss. Users could take more pictures than ever and access them instantly. This phase paved the way for the gorgeous, modern selfies of today.

The Smartphone Selfie

It’s undeniable that the smartphone selfie owes much of its fame to the continuous popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but what really encouraged the selfie’s rise to popularity was the first front-facing smartphone camera. When it was released in 2010, users were able to view their selfies before they even snapped them. No device in history, with the exception of the mirror and computer-mounted webcam, had ever offered this kind of instant access to an image before. With that kind of photographic magic at our fingertips, is it really any wonder that selfie delirium ensued? Now there are apps like Aviary, which are designed so that users can edit their selfies to perfection before sharing them with the world. Apps like Snapchat provide a fun, impermanent way for users to send loved ones (or loved hopefuls) their selfie-snippets of the day. Unsurprisingly, these apps made the selfie more popular than ever. The selfie even got its own song in early 2014, and a TV show in fall of 2014.

The Nixie Prototype Selfie

The Nixie prototype takes wearable technology to unprecedented heights, literally. This wearable drone camera poses as a wristband when you’re not using it, and can transform into a flying quadcopter the second you unstrap it. Nixie then takes photos and videos from above while you keep doing whatever epic thing you’re doing. This unbelievable, hands-free device offers a 360-degree panorama, and is able to follow users from the air using motion sensors and motion-prediction algorithms. Although the Nixie prototype is not yet available commercially, it or something similar could play a huge role in the future of the selfie.

Whether this brief history has inspired you to grab your smartphone and star in your very own photo shoot, or it has made you wish more strongly than ever that the selfie would fade into obscurity, it’s a fact that this “fad” has been around for quite some time, and selfies probably won’t be disappearing from our lexicon or our social lives anytime soon.

Tags: selfie, social media history, camera, smartphones