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What’s the Difference between a Selfie and a Self-Portrait?

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659

The global museum sector is celebrating the second MuseumSelfie Day this week, as organised by CultureThemes. In preparation, Annelisa Stephan, Manager for Digital Engagement at The Getty, approached Arpad Kovacs, Assistant Curator of Photography, and yours truly with a question I was surprised to find I hadn’t considered before. What’s the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait? You can read Arpad’s response over on the Getty Iris as well as a version of my response which I’m posting in full here:

The selfie has many histories. It has emerged into popular culture with the alignment of varying influences and circumstances. As a result, cultural and communications theorists are dipping their toes into art history to understand the selfie, demonstrating the relevance of this discipline. However, these researchers are combining art history with multiple lines of inquiry, alongside technology and social media, visual data analysis, photography theory, psychoanalysis, gender and identity theory. Selfies require a multi-disciplinary approach to address the many questions which sit within them. Questions about the nature of identity, the difference between painting, photography and digital images and the politics of representation all play out as debates around these images. I feel it is problematic to look at selfies through only one lens.

Self-portraits of the type Rembrandt van Rijn painted were largely intended to convey the sum of a person, their history and their present. French semiologist, Roland Barthes, believed painted portraiture advertised “a social and financial status,” and American photography theorist, Allan Sekula, described the tradition of painted portraiture as “honorific” and having “inherent privileges.” In comparison, the dominant effect of photography, particularly types which did not require long exposure periods, were described by writer Susan Sontag as akin to “slicing out” a moment and freezing it. In this way, photographic self-portraits are often understood to capture a person as a fleeting presence in that moment. Stepping forward again, digital and new media theorists, Nathan Jurgenson, Jill Walker Rettberg, and José van Dijck, have all articulated how digital images, especially when broadcast on social media, can be understood as a method of communication, one part of a larger contextual conversation.

As a newly minted term for self-representation, the selfie is just one in a historical lexicon for images of this type. Art historian James Hall notes the term ‘self-portrait’ only came into common practice during the early twentieth century, with “the traditional ‘Portrait of the Artist’ and ‘Portrait by/of Himself’” being preferred terms until that time. Which leads one to wonder whether it is anachronistic to refer to Rembrandt’s self-representational images as ‘self-portraits’?

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Self-Portrait," 1659, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art DC

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art

Painted self-portraits and selfies share many similarities. Both selfies and self-portraits are forms of self-representation using technology. Smartphones and cameras are types of technology, mirrors and painting are other types. They are both frequently shared with others, albeit using different platforms for the purpose. They are often serialised. We take many selfies, and those we broadcast are authentic to our fleeting, personal sense of self in that moment. Rembrandt and other artists also painted many self-portraits, and these can be studied and presented as a series. How is the intention behind one form of serialisation different to another? This is an interesting question to consider when seeking to better understand both practices.

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo, 1839, daguerreotype, Library of Congress

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo, 1839, daguerreotype, Library of Congress

To assist us in answering this question, we can consider some notable differences between painted self-portraits and selfies. Self-portraits are created to be read as art, are displayed in museums or galleries and we are granted permission to view them as texts, functioning independently from the intent of the artist. Selfies are borne of vernacular photography practices and are brought into museums and galleries by visitors. It is perilous to read selfies in the same way as art, to ignore the context of their social interaction and the intent of the selfie-taker. It is important to remember these images are shared as part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way. We are allowed to leave these elements out of our reading of artist’s self-portraits.


As a final point, we should note recent studies have dismantled narratives around these images in mainstream media and investigated the process of selfie-making in detail. Rettberg, along with PhD candidate, Anne Burns, and communications theorist, Kate Warfield, have each conducted research which reveal and deconstruct the normalising language of ridicule, narcissism and pathology. Rettberg has observed such narratives around self-representation are “particularly common when women engage in these practices.” Digging further, Warfield’s study includes interviews with young women who take selfies and this is revealing the level of calculated intent sitting behind these images and the process of their creation. It details the ways these images may be used to self-consciously conform or resist conventions of representation found both in art and mainstream media.


So in conclusion, yes, it is useful to be aware of debates underpinning the distinction between selfies and self-portraits. However, it is equally important to remain cognisant of their similarities and judgement narratives about the value of each. What benefit do we gain by policing the distinctions between self-portraits and selfies? I feel we gain more insight into the function of both by keeping in mind their nuanced differences and similarities.


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