What’s the difference between Selfies and Self Portraits?

The first “selfie” I took was in 1999 with a Polaroid camera. I’m not sure why I wanted to take a photo of myself. My husband at the time was/is a photographer, and he took a lot of photos of me. Yet, for some reason taking a photo of myself was different. I had control over my own image. It wasn’t that the photos I took of myself made me look “prettier” because they seemed to be more emotional in expression than the ones my ex-husband took. Perhaps those polaroids said more about how I felt about myself than they documented a face.

Polaroid taken of me with the same camera by my ex-husband. Obviously, I look way prettier here than in my selfies.

I never forgot those Polaroids. At the time, I described them as “self-portraits.” They were, indeed photos I had taken of myself. Held at arms length, at random times of day, I didn’t put all that much thought into the composition, or the lighting, or anything really. The act of taking my own photo felt strange enough.

In 2013, the word “selfie” earned the honors of becoming the “Word of the Year.” Never before in history, has there been so many people taking photos of themselves, at arms length or in the mirror, though not with a Polaroid, but with a digital camera. But these “selfies” are not self-portraits, or are they?

…anyone who’s seen selfies out there can tell you that some people put A LOT of thought in the composition and lighting.

Self-portraits are generally thought to be works of art, either by an artist or photographer. Selfies are not considered art, and sometimes considered works of narcissism. Some say that self-portraits incorporate thoughtfulness to composition, lighting and the subject. However, anyone who’s seen selfies out there can tell you that some people put A LOT of thought in the composition and lighting (and subject matter). Others say the difference between self-portraits and selfies boil down to intent. Are you just snapping a photo of yourself? Do you have an artistic intention? Whether your photo is any good doesn’t matter, it’s what you mean by it.

Are you just snapping a photo of yourself? Do you have an artistic intention? Whether your photo is any good doesn’t matter, it’s what you mean by it.

I’m not so sure it’s any of it. The division between creating a self-portrait and a selfie is the latest in linguistic elitism. Art and craft. Fashion and street wear. Photography and pictures.  Eroticism and pornography.  On one side you have a class of people who create on an artistic level, and then you have what everyone else creates. Art is a painting; craft is paint-by-numbers, unless it’s Andy Warhol’s Paint by Numbers, then it’s art again. How the Fashion gods decide what is “Fashion” and what is “Street Wear” I’ll never figure out, except maybe, “Fashion” is who shows at Fashion Week, and “Street Wear” is who shows at trade shows.

Zinaida Serebriakova self-portrait in 1909, wouldn’t be out of place today as a selfie.

In the Middle Ages, when mirrors became cheaper and more accessible, artists started painting themselves, mostly as marketing pieces to show off their skills to potential patrons. Before the 20th Century, women were not allowed to practice painting nudes of other people, so they painted themselves. Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo used self-portraiture to depict their intensities and emotional pain. Cindy Sherman, in her early work, used self-portraiture to identify female archetypes in film.

Cindy Sherman Film Still

So, what of bloggers who take selfies to market their beauty or fashion skills to their potential readers? I remember how I started The Coveted as a street style blog, only to find that taking photos of myself was easier. There are those people who dress up in costume for their selfies, and others who share their emotions. Even though my early Polaroids show raw emotions, there really wasn’t much thought put into them. I just wanted to capture a moment.  Yet, those Polaroids feel less like “selfies” than other selfies that incorporated more thought and intention.

Whatever the reason, we have this impulse to photograph ourselves. Maybe it’s just that impulse that is at the heart of Art itself.

What do you think? Is there a difference between self-portraiture and selfies?

 

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