On November 19, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “selfie” had been deemed their Word of The Year. The term, whose first recorded use as an Instagram hashtag occurred on January 27, 2011, was actually invented in 2002, when an Australian chap posted a picture of himself on an internet forum and called it a “selfie”. While devices for taking photos of oneself have been available for many years prior to the proliferation of the smartphones responsible for this phenomenon, the history of the selfie dates back to the origins of photography itself.

As the Public Domain Review notes, the first recorded instance of the selfie harkens back to what may have been the first photographic portrait. In 1839, a young Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius stepped out of his family’s store and took a photograph of himself:

He took the image by removing the lens cap and then running [into the] frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back he wrote “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”


We now live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.