The Peculiar Power of the Selfie

Self-portraits have a long and storied history in art. (Attention: Art Nerd alert)

Artists sometimes used self-portraits to show their status and their political connections, such as this self-portrait by the Spanish painter Diego Velasquez.


This portrait is part of a larger masterwork, Las Meninas, which shows him painting the Infanta.


Sometimes the artist is also an actor, dressed in costumes, to appear a particular way or reference artists who have come before. Rembrandt was famous for this in his youth.


Later on, he was far more interested in recording his authentic self, even when it was less flattering.


There are no real rules for self-portraits and those that did exist were spoofed centuries ago by artists defying those who came before and expressing themselves as they liked. Generally, the artist engages with the viewer, making eye contact.


The above self-portrait by Gustave Courbet is a little more playful, depicting the artist as a desperate creative in his smock.

Artists will also use symbolism, often with encoded meanings that are personal to themselves, such as most of Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits.


Sometimes an artist does many self-portraits in their career and you can see their faces and moods evolve. This is especially true of the self-portraits of Van Gogh.


As photography evolved, it became a way to set up self-portraits in a far more elaborate setting, such as the work of Cindy Sherman. In much of her work, the line between artist and actor disappears and she creates a persona that deliberate challenges our notions of identity.


And, of course, today the self-portrait has evolved into digital selfies. Through Instagram, we can all be artists and select the kind of face we want to show the world. While selfies get a bad rap as the refuge of the egotistical and self-absorbed, I really enjoyed looking back through my self-portraits. When I was very little, my father used to hold me up so we could make faces in the bathroom mirror – now I can capture them!

As an actress, it’s fascinating to me because my face is one aspect of my instrument and controlling your face and your image is part of the talent. For me, it’s not so much to show off a haircut or an outfit as it is to capture a moment, a fleeting face of yourself. Many times it’s not even a particularly flattering face, but I remember how I felt and so it’s like a postcard mailed to yourself from the past.

In order to share two years worth of selfies in a short space, I created a Flipagram, which is a free app that allows you to set a slideshow to music. It’s only 30 seconds so I encourage you to watch it and enjoy.

When do you take selfies? And why? Do you see them as a way to express yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

6 thoughts on “The Peculiar Power of the Selfie”

  1. I love your selfies and the confidence they exude!
    I take some, not many, maybe that demonstrates a lack of self-confidence…or a phone that hasn’t got a front camera. If I want a selfie at present it’s a hit and miss game of two dozen pics and maybe one will catch my whole face! I took the photo today on your thread with Bekah’s new phone.
    I also wish I could express myself better in them. My reticence extends to self portraits…they need to look ‘good’ ‘sensible’ or I feel uncomfortable. I love everyone’s silly pics, but just can’t do them myself. Maybe one day I’ll have the confidence…
    BTW I’m quite partial to Gustave Courbet’s selfie portrait! 😉

  2. I love your selfies. They look like you, in very natural settings.

    I take them myself after getting over a fear of looking like I wanted attention. Now I like to take them because I like to see how I have changed, along with others I know. As I’m one of the only shutterbugs in my family, I might not have that record otherwise. My only rule for myself is that it has to be natural – something I’d actually be caught doing.

  3. I love the article, I admire the confidence, and I especially appreciate the art nerdery and the perspective it brings to a usually clamorous conversation decrying them outright. Doubtless, there are some who take them egotistically (there are storied examples of selfies gone wrong highlighting it, even tumblrs). I still see that most people’s selfies are… playful. That’s not a bad thing.

    But I don’t take selfies. I don’t think I will much ever care to. Partly… Partly, I think, it is something I inherited from my particular history, I especially don’t like looking at pictures from when I was younger and pictures of me now … just remind me, somehow, regardless. I still look to myself like some homunculus amalgam of my past and present self.

    Regardless, there’s another part, less to do with never having been very comfortable with how the various bits that are me fit together and… I find I have never *wanted* to be in the picture. Not on the stage, not in the photo, not heard singing in the song. I prefer to be the technician running the lights, the carpenter setting the stage, the composer arranging the score, the writer conniving the lines, anything and everything BUT… everything but being in front. Partly stage fright, partly embarrassment, partly lack of confidence, but mostly… I just don’t like being there. I’ve tried it. Grew up with it even, my sister and I were both theater kids. But at some point she took to it, and I discovered I had a talent for being the one to arrange *around* the performers.

    If you ever see me do a self-portrait, though, she’ll probably be a tongue-in-cheek stick figure. Or… a cat, or other animal, or even an object… Because if I need to, I can at least code myself that way, and get a point of emotion across. But not something literal. I just don’t want to be there.

    All that admitted to, I’d rather everyone else keep playing. After all. Play’s a good thing.

  4. I love this post!

    I basically never take selfies (and avoid photos of myself in general)… unless a wild fairy queen has instructed me to depart from my usual ways. That said, I think my Olive pictures are weird sort-of-selfies.

    Ps. Your smile makes me smile.

  5. Okay, my post seems to have been eaten, or it will show up later and I will appear as a doofus who posted twice.

    Either way, I have to ditto what Holly said above (except for the Olive pictures part). 🙂

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