Before the Selfie: A Brief History of Looking at Ourselves

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Grand Duchess Anastasia taking a selfie in 1913. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

FYI: This piece is drawn from the latest episode of The Cooler podcast, which you can listen to here!

Is there anyone with access to a cameraphone and a WiFi connection who can honestly say they've never taken a photo of their own face? In our brave digital age where selfies seem to constitute a staggering portion of all posts on social media (at the moment of writing, there are 301 million posts  tagged "#selfie" on Instagram), it’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t compulsively record what they looked like -- or at least care about it deeply. 

Mirrors: The Original Front-Facing Cameras

Detail from an Ancient Greek Attic red-figure lekythos depicting a Seated woman holding a mirror, c. 470–460 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Detail from an Ancient Greek Attic red-figure lekythos depicting a seated woman holding a mirror, c. 470–460 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Before it was possible to immortalize one's own images on screen or on canvas, people had to make do with mirrors, right? Not exactly, or at least not everyone. As inconceivable as it seems today, had you been born in the 12th century rather than the 20th, you probably wouldn’t have known exactly what your own face looked like unless you were wealthy. Mirrors -- those ever-present reflectors of our faces and ourselves, on our walls and in our pockets (and now, in our front-facing cameras) -- didn’t become mass-produced or remotely affordable until the Renaissance.


You know that feeling of undignified horror when you discover you’ve had a piece of spinach between your teeth or mascara coating your under-eyes all day because you had no access to a mirror? Well, try imagining that feeling being your reality every day for the rest of your short, indentured, antibiotic-free life.

The question of how lacking any concrete impression of one’s own features must have affected 99% of the population’s sense of identity -- not to mention self-worth and place in the world -- is a mammoth one for another time; let’s instead ask what your regular peasant could do about that spinach.

The earliest Average Joes were left to improvise with assessing their own reflections in dark pools of water or, if they were lucky, polished stones like obsidian (a naturally occurring volcanic glass). Polished precious metals also worked well, but were decidedly less wallet-friendly.

Echo and Narcissus, 1903 by John William Waterhouse
What's a guy without a mirror to do? Echo and Narcissus, 1903 by John William Waterhouse

Metal-coated glass mirrors are said to have been invented in modern-day Lebanon in the first century AD, and glass mirrors backed with gold leaf were apparently kicking around Ancient Rome. But even if you had one of these prized items, the low reflectivity of polished metal resulted in a frustratingly dark image, especially when used indoors.

In China, people began making mirrors with the use of silver-mercury amalgams as early as 500 AD, but it wasn’t until the early Renaissance that European manufacturers got their act together and discovered a superior method of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam. In the 16th century, the Italian city of Venice -- already famed as a hub of glass-making know-how -- became a center of mirror production and used this new technique to produce a near-perfect and undistorted reflection for the first time. (Think of it as the iPhone 6 of mirrors: shiny, coveted and super-spendy.) 

Despite these innovations -- which really only impacted the wealthy -- it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1835, that true mass manufacture of mirrors came about with the invention of the silvered-glass mirror, credited to a German chemist, that was swiftly adapted for the masses. Hello, greater availability of affordable mirrors! Goodbye, spinach!

The Rise of Self-Portraits

Titian's Venus With a Mirror, 1555.
Titian's Venus With a Mirror, 1555.

We don’t know when the very first bona fide self-portrait was created, but images of artists at work are encountered in Ancient Egyptian paintings and sculpture and also on Ancient Greek vases. Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias also apparently sneaked a number of selfies onto the “Battle of the Amazons” on the Parthenon, which is an act of artistic license so brazen that it rivals that guy who confessed to enlarging Missouri on the United States’ Wikipedia page every time he gets tipsy.

The traditional self-portrait as we know it didn’t come around until relatively recently. The first painted selfies were super-practical. Artists would use themselves as models in historical, Biblical or mythical scenes, which presumably also had the pleasant effect of saving a few pennies on actual models. Artists also playfully sneaked themselves into paintings in a kind of pre-Enlightenment Where’s Waldo: in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, or in a reflection on a knight’s armor, or in a crowd of onlookers.

Crafty (or cheap?) old Botticelli, sneaking himself into his Adoration of the Magi (ca.1475), far left
Crafty (or cheap?) old Botticelli, sneaking himself into his Adoration of the Magi (ca.1475), far left

If we’re in the business of picking favorites here, then all hail the selfie king of the 15th century: German painter, printmaker and certified hottie Albrecht Dürer. Something of an artistic superstar by contemporary standards, the hard-hustling Dürer was highly conscious of his public image and reputation, and is thought to have depicted his own image more often than any artist before him. (Think: your teenage cousin on a Snap streak.) His first selfie was at at the tender age of 13 in 1484. Once of age, Dürer indulged in what official selfie experts now recognize as “thirst traps”: at 22, he painted a longing self-portrait that was almost certainly intended for his new fiancée.

In another specimen we’d today file under “#feelingmylook #blessed”, the Madrid self-portrait (1498) depicts Dürer, then at the top of his art game, as a dandy in fashionable Italian dress. And of course, let’s not forget his nude selfies or his last-ever self-portrait depicting him as -- who else? -- Jesus.

Albrecht Dürer's Self-portrait with Fur-trimmed Robe, ca 1500.No Messiah complex here, right?

As self-portraiture became increasingly common in the art world over the ensuing centuries, it's not until the 19th century that a new reigning prolific selfie addict truly emerged: Vincent van Gogh, who drew and painted himself more than 43 times in just three years between 1886 and 1889.

The Photographic Selfie Emerges

Even with a vague awareness of the invention and explosion of photography during the 19th century, it’s still always jolting to remember that the first photographic self-portrait was taken in 1839. For context, that was a mere year after the first photograph taken of a human (by Louis Daguerre), and only a decade after the first photograph taken in a camera, ever -- which is to say, it didn’t take long for the human desire for self-capture to elbow its way into a shockingly new medium.

Self-Portrait by Robert Cornelius, 1839
Self-Portrait by Robert Cornelius, 1839

The face of the first selfie was Robert Cornelius (1809-1983), a son of Dutch immigrants to Philadelphia who became a photography pioneer. He immortalized himself in daguerreotype -- one of the very first forms of photography, wherein a sheet of silver-plated copper was polished to a mirror finish, treated with fumes that made its surface light-sensitive and then exposed in a camera, making the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with mercury vapor.

If this all sounds incredibly time-consuming, it was, but this is what allowed Cornelius to make selfie history in the first place. In the time it took to expose the image, he was able to uncover the lens, run into the shot for over a minute and then replace the lens cap.

Think about that the next time you get irritated when your iPhone camera takes a ninth of a second to focus!

For even more history of the selfie, from the origin of the word itself to the arrival of the front-facing camera, Kim Kardashian and “death by selfie", listen to this episode of The Cooler!