The History of the Selfie

Selfies. Everyone knows what a selfie is. They are plastered all over social media and the new iPhone update even has a special photo album dedicated to them. Selfies are everywhere today whether we like them or not.

Merriam-Webster defines the word selfie as

an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social networks.

The word first made it into the dictionary in 2013.

The oldest known “selfie” is thought to be Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck, an Early Netherlandish painter, in 1433.


Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck

This work of art is thought to be first self-portrait ever painted and pretty much every well-known artist since has painted his or her self into his or her work somehow, either as a self-portrait or somewhere in the background.

Some of the most well known selfie artists are Frido Khalo (1940), Vincent van Gogh (1889), Rapheal (circa 1517-1518), and Leonardo DaVinci (circa 1512-1515).


Some people may disagree with me on using self-portraits as selfies, since they don’t exactly fit the definition of a selfie and were technically painted and not taken with a camera of some sort. If we are going with that definition of a selfie then the oldest selfie ever recorded is said to be Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait taken in 1839.

Robert Cornelius

Robert Cornelius was definitely way ahead of his time when he set up his camera in the back of his family’s store where he took the image and wrote on the back “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.”

Fast forward to the 1950’s and we have a fantastic selfie taken by former secretary of state and decorated Gen. Collin Powell when he was a teenager.


Gen. Colin Powell

A few years ago Sir Paul McCartney tried to lay claim to the title with this picture he took of himself in 1965

Sir Paul McCartney

…sorry Sir Paul!

In June of 2000 Samsung launched the very first cell phone with a camera in Korea, the Samsung SGH V200. Unfortunately the camera and phone were separate entities and in order to see the pictures you took you had to plug the device into a computer and download them.

The first camera phone in the U.S. didn’t launch until November 2002. Sanyo introduced the Sanyo SCP-5300 on Sprint’s network.



Around the same timeframe MySpace was launched and the most popular choice for profile pics was the selfie. MySpace was soon followed by a multitude of social media platforms including the Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. One major thing all of these websites have in common is the use of selfies as profile pics.

MySpace Tom

MySpace Tom

Apple helped up the selfie game with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone is extremely important in the history of the selfie because of its integration of both apps and the ability to post selfies directly to the Internet anytime, anywhere.


Apple iPhone

The invention of apps paved the way for social media apps, both old and new. In 2010 Instagram was released and it introduced the world to photo-sharing apps. Instagram is one of the most popular social media apps today with one of its more popular hashtags being #selfie



2013 became the official “year of the selfie” with the introduction of the word into the Merriam Webster dictionary.

Over time selfies have become so much more than a grainy picture taken in a bathroom stall. In fact, todays smartphones are capable of taking pictures with better quality than most actual cameras used to.

Selfies have completely changed the way we represent ourselves both in person and online. People today are way more visual than ever before and depend on profile pictures, online photo albums, pictures, and videos more than ever before. As a vain society we want to be put our best face forward and what better way to do that than with a selfie?

Some people will argue that selfies show severe narcism and some see them as a form of activism. I see them as a fun form of self-expressionism.

2014 gave rise to some pretty famous selfies including the oh-so-popular celebrity selfie taken at the Oscars. Apparently some people saw this as a marketing ploy by Samsung but I will leave you to decide what you want…

Oscar Selfie

Another controversial 2014 selfie is this one that was taken at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. President Obama is selfie-ing with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Britain’s David Cameron but curiously enough the actual photo has never been seen, only this photo of the photo being taken.

Obama Selfie

Obama Selfie

2015 brought us some Pope selfie action!


Pope Selfie

So there it is, the history of the selfie. Who would have thought that painting oneself into a self-portrait would lead to such a big movement in today’s culture?


6 thoughts on “The History of the Selfie

  1. I never knew that the selfie went that far back! I love how you explain its evolution from how it went from painted masterpieces to a quick snapshot on our always accessible smartphones. The invention of the selfie on our phone can be great, but personally I’ll keep myself hidden (another personal choice).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Before reading this, I had no idea that selfies had a unique history with so many historical figures such as Van Gogh and Paul McCartney. Now, it has evolved into selfie sticks and phones specifically geared toward taking selfies., such as the iPhone. I am not much into selfies, though, but to each their own. In the link below, the author discussed studies that reveal how people who take selfies tend to be narcissistic. It is an interesting read and something to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In my opinion, even the self-portraits painted on canvas should be considered selfies! I have not thought it before, but each generation used its own medium to create the equivalent of today’s selfies whether it was with canvas, a clunky camera in the back of a store, or the first camera phone.

    Your inclusion of the picture of Khalo reminded me of her response to an interviewer when asked why she painted so many self-portraits: “I paint myself because I know the subject.” Maybe that is part of the appeal of selfies.


  4. When I was a kid, I was constantly in trouble with my mom for taking pictures. Back then, we were limited to 24 or so shots on a roll of film, but I could never stop myself from spending one or two on a picture of the sky or the inside of a dumpster, ephemera that was only appreciated by me!

    I’ve never really photographed well, so I’m not inclined to photograph myself, but I think the rise of digital photography has really enabled more people to explore the medium– a good thing! I’m no photographer, but if you flip though the pictures on my phone, you’re still going to find as many random pics of the sky as there are pics of friends and family. That’s why, despite all of the naysayers, I tend to agree with you and your article was a fun exploration of the selfie as a form of self-expression!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I never thought of self-portraits as “selfies,” but it’s pretty cool. Recently, I saw a distant cousin of mine for the first time in years (she came to visit my 91 year old grandmother). She had a selfie stick, and she went on and on about how great and revolutionary it is for taking pictures. My other cousin, who was also there, discussed hers at length, and I felt as though I was in an alternate universe.

    I think taking selfies is fine, if it’s your thing. I’ve heard that politicians are using selfies now to help with social media blitzes, and I can see how that would make them seem more “personal” or whatever.

    I do take selfies, but usually I take them with my dog or cat (because I have no life) or with my friend George at White Water (because he doesn’t have a life, either).

    All in all, the selfie game is strong with Da Vinci, and now we all have a selfie to which we should aspire. That’s kinda cool.


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