10 Pivotal Moments in the History of the Selfie

Jonnathan Coleman
Apr 10, 2018 · 8 min read
Unidentified woman taking a mirror selfie circa 1900 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Everybody and their grandmother knows what a selfie is: It’s an image of one’s self, taken by one’s self. There are so many different types that it’s impossible to name them all. The mirror selfie, the gym selfie and the dreaded, duck-face selfie are some of the more popular ones.

Studies say the average Millennial will take more than 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. They spend more than an hour every week taking selfies. Instagram hosts hundreds of millions of selfies and 1,000 selfies are uploaded to the platform every 10 seconds.

Let’s take a look at where all these selfies came from.

1. In 1433 Jan Van Eyck Paints a Self-Portrait

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban - Credit: Wikipedia

It’s likely that self-portraits have been around since the dawn of time, but it’s nearly impossible to track down the very first one. For all we know, a hieroglyph on the side of an Egyptian pyramid was a pharaoh drawing a picture of himself, but since that can’t be proved, it is widely believed that the first self-portrait on panel was painted in 1433 by Jan Van Eyck.

It’s an oil painting titled, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. The man isn’t wearing a turban but actually a chaperon with its ends tied up, which is how one would wear a chaperon if they were painting and didn’t want to get it dirty.

The portrait has sat in the National Gallery in London since 1851. It was painted at the beginning of The Renaissance and once mirrors became higher quality, self-portraits took off. Millennials aren’t the only ones obsessed with selfies.

2. In 1839 Robert Cornelius Takes the First Selfie

Robert Cornelius - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1839, French inventor Louis Daguerre introduced daguerreotypy to the world. It was the first photographic process available to the public, but it was much more complex than snapping a photo today. A daguerreotypist had to polish a sheet of silver-plated copper, expose it to a camera, treat it with vapors, treat it again with liquid chemicals, rinse it, dry it, and then seal it behind a protective glass enclosure. It wasn’t for everybody.

One day, 30-year-old Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia decided to make his own Daguerreotype. He was a skilled silversmith, lamp maker, deeply interested in chemistry, and his first Daguerreotype was of himself.

Cornelius used a box fitted with a lens to create his image. He uncovered the lens, ran into frame, posed for several minutes, and then covered up the lens. The image was taken outside of his family’s lamp store. It was the first selfie, and the rest is history.

3. In 1865 Nadar Photographs the First Revolving Selfie

Gaspard-Felix Tournachon - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1865, French photographer, journalist and novelist, Gaspard-Felix Tournachon (nickname: Nadar) created a revolving selfie. This might even be the first GIF ever.

Nadar photographed himself a dozen times as he slowly rotated in a swivel chair. He then stitched all the photos together to make an almost-seamless rotating selfie. His ingenuity back in 1865 foreshadowed a lot of things to come in the future of photography.

4. In 1900 George Eastman Invents the Kodak Brownie Camera

Kodak Brownie - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1884, American entrepreneur George Eastman patented a film roll he had been working on for several years. By 1888, he perfected his camera design and his first camera went on sale that year. It was called the Kodak and it came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures. The only problem was that the entire camera had to be sent back to the factory for processing and reloading when the roll was finished. In 1900, after tweaking with his invention, Eastman released the Kodak Brownie camera and changed photography forever.

The camera cost just $1 and users could easily change rolls of film. The rolls were affordably priced and finished rolls could be sent to the Kodak factory for processing.

The Brownie was such a hit that its models remained on sale for the next 60 years. People were encouraged to photograph everything, and Eastman himself encouraged users to find the perfect “Kodak moment.”

Who knows how many selfies were taken during this time, but because of its ease of use and affordability, people photographed everything and anything. The “snapshot” was born and public photography took off.

5. In 1914 Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Takes a Mirror Selfie

Anastasia Nikolaevna - Credit: The Atlantic

The Kodak Brownie took the world by storm and everybody was using it — even the royal family of Russia. Anastasia Nikolaevna was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II — the last emperor of Russia. Her and her family were executed by the Bolshevik secret police when she was only 17 years old, but four years before her murder, she took one of the most famous selfies in the history of selfies.

When she was just 13 years old, using her Kodak Brownie camera, she posed in front of a mirror and snapped a selfie. She sent the photo to a friend and on the back of the picture she wrote, “I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.”

If you thought teenage girls posing in front of the mirror and snapping selfies was a phenomenon created by Millennials, you thought wrong. Snapchat would’ve probably been just as much of a hit in the early 1900s as it is now.

6. In 1966 Buzz Aldrin Takes the First Selfie in Outer Space

Buzz Aldrin - Credit: Wikipedia

Another one of the most famous selfies in history was taken by American engineer and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin is well-known for walking on the moon with Neil Armstrong as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, but in 1966 he made history by snapping the first selfie in outer space.

The Gemini 12 space mission was the final mission of the Gemini program and Aldrin was just a rookie pilot at the time. The purpose of the mission was to prove that astronauts could work effectively in space. Aldrin successfully completed a two-hour space walk, photographed star fields, and did other chores. During his space walk, Aldrin found some extra time to snap a selfie that would go down in history.

7. In 2002 the Word ‘Selfie’ Appears Online

Message Board Credit: ABC.net

Where did the word “selfie” come from? Today it seems like an obvious description for the image of one’s self, but neither Buzz Aldrin, Anastasia Nikolaevna, nor anybody else who snapped a selfie called it a selfie. It wasn’t until 2002 that the word became common.

In September of 2002, an Australian man named “Hopey” posted a photo of his busted lip on an image-hosting website. He then went to a message board and wrote, “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

He added a link to the photo in case anybody wanted to see it, and that was the first time anybody dubbed their image a “selfie” online. It all started from a drunken night out and a 21st birthday party. Later in 2003, another Australian blog post went live referring to self-images as “selfies” or a “selfy.” The sun rises in the East, and so did the word “selfie.”

8. In 2003 Front-facing Phone Cameras Hit the Market

Photo by lifesimply.rocks on Unsplash

There was a time when people actually took selfies and had no idea what they looked like. Can you imagine that? People were taking blind selfies and hoping they came out good. Today, the front-facing phone camera is more of a necessity than a keypad.

The first front-facing cell-phone cameras were introduced way back in 2003. The cameras were designed for super important business men making conference calls, but that didn’t last long. In 2010 the iPhone 4 introduced its front-facing camera and it’s been an iPhone staple ever since. Steve Jobs originally intended the camera to be used for video calls, but that didn’t last long either. Apple eventually recognized the public’s love for selfies when it introduced the “Selfie” folder in its camera app.

9. In 2011 the First Selfie Hashtag (#selfie) Appears on Instagram

In October of 2010, photo-sharing app Instagram launched and quickly took off — getting 10 million registered users within a year. On January 16, 2011 the first image with the hashtag selfie (#selfie) was uploaded to the app by user Jennifer Lee.

The image wasn’t actually uploaded with the the selfie hashtag in the caption. It wasn’t until January 27 — when Instagram supported hashtagged words — that Jennifer Lee added the tag to her caption, and a trend was born.

Today, millions of #selfies have been uploaded to the site, and some of the most famous personalities in the world have taken part in the trend. Kim Kardashian — who has more than 100 million followers — has been dubbed, “The Selfie Queen,” but Jenn Lee is the #selfie pioneer.

10. In 2013 the Word Selfie Enters the Official Lexicon

Photo by Ben Weber on Unsplash

Every year the Oxford Dictionary analyzes the usage of 150 million words in the English language to crown a ‘Word of the Year.’ According to Oxford Dictionaries, usage of the word “selfie” increased 17,000% over the course of the year. In 2013 the word beat out “showrooming” and “bitcoin” to be crowned the winner.

Oxford Dictionaries defines the word as, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” If that wasn’t enough to solidify its standing in the English language, it became one of 150 new words to be added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2014.

Both 2013 and 2014 were big years for the word, and it became even more legendary when host of the 2014 Academy Awards, Ellen Degeneres, snapped one of the most viral selfies in history. The image featured: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong-o and others, and garnered more than 3 million Retweets.

Jonnathan Coleman

Written by

Digital. Physical. History. Future. Life. jonnathan.coleman@gmail.com

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