Posted by: rojas25m | November 17, 2015

Selfie is the New Portrait

What is lost, is never lost.  It is just replaced by something else. Remember when we talked about the importance of the portrait and portrait photography in the 18th century?  According to John Tagg, “[t]he portrait is . . . a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity” (37). The idea of the portrait as a type of identity is key to its enduring impact. Although the painted portrait is no longer a part of this generation’s social identity something else has taken its place.

Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children (Sir Joshua Reynolds) (1779)

On the first day of class, we looked at the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children. As a reminder, we spoke about all the signifiers present in the painting. The wooded setting and the pointed lightning are deliberate choices that highlight the wealth and status of the subject. We also talked about the specific poses, how the boy is center stage and the woman is holding her children with regal poise. All of these signifiers were essential to providing the viewer with the desired impression of the subject.

The painted portrait became the way in which families with money and power established an identity for themselves and for posterity. The idea of being able to look as noble, as pale, as composed as you chose is, of course, appealing. With the decline in the aristocracy, however, came the decline of the portrait as the medium of choice to convey a sense of self. The oils and canvases gave way to albumen and glass. The vacuum that was created by the decline of painted portraiture was filled, in a more pragmatic way, by photographs. Although the medium changed, the purpose of the portrait remained.



An 1869 portrait of Charles Darwin, By Julia Margaret Cameron

Remember when we talked about the photographic portrait of Charles Darwin? It may seem that with a photograph the idea of making things exactly as desired in order to display a specific set of values is gone due to the time and effort it took to take a single photo. Yet, many of the same tools used in the Lady Delme portrait to signify status and identity are used in portrait photography. A deliberate pose and creative lighting seemed to emphasize what is most important about this distinguished figure: his intellect.


Although cumbersome at first, with the passing years the technology for photographic portraiture became more and more efficient and accessible to the general public.

How did the ever-evolving technology of the photograph evolve the need for self-identification?

Today, photos have become commonplace in our society. The camera is now always in the palm of our hand and at the ready to take the perfect “pic” that will define the moment, and ourselves. The fact that we can take an innumerable amount of pictures in an instant means that we are able to choose the exact picture that defines the moment as we want others to see it. Our generation is one that is defined by the photograph. This is the era of the selfie.

The selfie is that self-taken photograph that is all about our face and, to a lesser degree, about the specific backgrounds and identifiers that we include. This type of self-portrait is ubiquitous in our culture. Our phones are the camera, we are the photographer and social media is the distributor that tells the world who we are and what we’ve done.

We post that picture that tells everyone, “I go to the gym. Be ashamed if you don’t.” We choose the perfect angle that says, “Don’t I look gorgeous in Rome. Be jealous.” We take the picture that will explain just how awesome our relationship is. It is wild and free and adventurous and if yours is not, too bad so sad.”

The viewer is allowed access only to that which has been carefully selected. Now you may say that is not true because you know of someone who posts every single moment of their lives without prejudice. I will argue that even those that post pictures as they sit on the toilet or looking like they just fell down a flight of stairs have made a very deliberate choice in what they have shown. With these pictures, they are saying, “I am confident enough to show you all of this. Are you this confident?”

Toilet Selfie

Nothing has changed since the time of the painted portrait. We use these pictures to show the world exactly what we want them to see. We want to look at a picture and remember who we are and what we have done. We ask the world to look at an orchestrated picture of ourselves and we want them to see as our very essence. Where we stand in society and how we see ourselves is all in a picture.


  1. I think you’ve identified something really significant in regard to selfie culture, the idea that selfies are a way of reclaiming our identities. It seems that frequently in modern culture and media selfies are looked down upon as an indication of vanity and self-obsession but I think you’re right that it’s so much more than that.

    Obviously this isn’t a new trend, people sat in uncomfortable positions and clothing for hours to have their portraits painted, so to treat selfies as though they are some indication of increasing vanity is ridiculous. Secondly, portraits were something that would hang in a person’s home or that maybe someone close to them would have. Selfies are on such a greater scale, they can be something you send to a friend or they can be how people present themselves to the world.

    Some are polished and careful, with filters and angles but some are silly and ridiculous and ugly. It can becomes more about signifying who you are as a person, both within societal labels and outside of them. I think you’re completely right about the significance of the deliberate choice people make when they take selfies, even those that may seem terrible or mundane. It’s something that the photographer (who is also the subject) has complete control over, orchestrating the picture to look exactly how they want, perfect or perfectly imperfect, and to say exactly what they want to say.

  2. I thought it would be interesting to research and comment on whether or not photographs are accurate representations of ourselves.

    According to researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, “there are currently more than 300 million photos tagged “selfie” on Instagram, but they may not be particularly accurate representations of the self. Moreover, people are actually really terrible at picking pictures that most accurately represent their faces.

    Strangers are better at recognizing likeness between people and photographs. If they were to pick certain images or “selfies” of a person by viewing a live-stream of the subject, the chances of them succeeding would be significantly high. In fact, a stranger’s ability to identify likeness between a subject’s image and their live depiction is higher, than the subject’s ability to identify their own likeness in photographs and reality. This has been proven by passing “selfies” through a facial recognition test while the subject is being live-streamed.

    Now whether or not technology and live-stream accurately depicts the reality of a subject is a separate matter. But one cannot deny that we humans can look very different from what we really look like, especially when it comes to photos.

    “Although we live with our own face day-to-day, it appears that knowledge of one’s own appearance comes at a cost,” lead study researcher Dr. David White said in a statement. “Existing memory representations interfere with our ability to choose images that are good representations or faithfully depict our current appearance.”

  3. This is very interesting and relevant, but while I was reading your post, I became interested in what selfies mean for none other than the self. Obviously, selfies are, as you said, carefully thought out and posed pictures that capture exactly what we want other people to see, and if they happen to be unusual then we are asking people to see that we are confident. What does the selfie do for that person though? I think there is something to be said for the selfie being an aspiration or a means of trying to instill confidence in oneself. For example, lets use the classic gym selfie. Angles are everything. Mirrors titled in just the right way make all the difference. The person who manages to snap that perfect selfie is aware of how much tinkering it took, but it could very well be a source of contentment. Hypothetically, if that person knows they need to be in better shape and is feeling very down on themselves, the validity that the perfect selfie can give to them is immense. It can encourage that person to think that they CAN look like that because they were already close enough to their goal to snap that picture.

    Selfies can be more than a bragging right on social media. It can be a way of celebrating and loving your body and your appearance in a world where there has always been that “ideal” image. It may not be the realest of photos, but the willingness to believe it is 100% accurate may give someone a small confidence boost or the motivation they need to change something they are unhappy with. Yes, there’s a million negatives to the selfie trend, but perhaps there are some positives too.

    Instead of viewing selfies as simply a choreographed/ posed likeness, I think it is worth some thought to see them as potentially motivational.

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