Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing. Of the countless images that have landed since Earthlings began visiting space, this is one of my favourites:
Almost 40 years before the word “selfie” made its way into the Millennial lexicon (and in 2013 the Oxford Dictionary), Aldrin set a record that most people at the time had probably never even dreamed of. His might not have been the first footprints on the moon, but THREE WHOLE YEARS before colleague Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man”, Buzz Aldrin took the first selfie in space. Something he doesn’t want us to forget… and who can blame him? So on that theme, I want to have a look back at some other notable selfie-takers in history.
Perhaps the times and the technology have changed, but the sentiment of capturing one’s own image goes back over 150 years. That’s right, the folks over at Guinness World Records recognise this image, by Robert Cornelius of Pennsylvania, USA, as the first ever recorded ‘selfie’, back in 1839:
Cornelius would have had to spend anywhere up to 15 minutes for the exposure to capture his image, depending on how sunny it was outside! The resulting image wouldn’t look out of place in the feed of any modern Instagrammer, right down to the scratches and discolouration. #nofilter
Between this pivotal moment in self-recording photography, and the turn of the 20th century, despite a 150-year wait for official designation as a “selfie”, photographers played around a little. Notably, Hippolyte Bayard (1940), and Hannah Maynard (1893), whose representations of themselves stand out against the era in which they were created.
Bayard was a pioneer of photographic methods, and his Le Noyé (Self Portrait As A Drowned Man) has been described as a bit of a dig at the officials who, in his mind, overlooked his contributions to the art of photography. It is widely regarded as the first known staged selfie. The back of the print features a snarky caption, an excerpt of which is relayed here:
…As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….!Hippolyte Bayard, on Self Portrait As A Drowned Man (1940)
Was this one of the first uses of photography in performance art? Perhaps Bayard lived a couple of hundred years too early, and would have found his tribe in the souls of Vivian Maier, Andy Warhol, and others of that ilk.
Fast forward fifty years or so to 1893, and Hannah Maynard’s Tea Time is proudly breaking every stereotypical notion that I had in my head of Victorian feminine values: strict; stern; subservient; accessory to home and husband. In this almost surreal multiple-exposure image, Maynard is hosting a tea party. And serving at it… And attending it. All at once!
The result is an amusing, slightly surreal composition, which at first glance may be taken for a snapshot of Victorian life; but look a little closer and this image required a fair amount of creativity and technical precision to accomplish. When we consider the historical adage “The camera never lies”, Maynard’s work is a prime example of how, even a century before Photoshop and other image editing suites, the medium of photography could be used to manipulate reality. Besides anything else, Maynard has definitely rocketed to the top of my fantasy dinner guest list!
I rarely hear selfies discussed without hearing mention of teens, as they are the demographic who are credited with/accused of (delete as preferred) taking the most selfies. So let’s pay homage to the most famous teenage girl of her time, who possibly took the first bedroom selfie of any teenage girl, anywhere: Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, 1914.
Using a Kodak Brownie box camera, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nikolai II, later immortalised in fantasy and animated wishful thinking, snapped herself in her bedroom mirror, noting her “shaking hands” as she stood still for the length of the exposure, balancing the camera on a chair. Anastasia’s ready access to, and fondness for, the camera may well have contributed to the mystery and drama that echoed throughout Europe up until 2007, almost 90 years after her death. She was so well documented, and her face was so familiar, that lookalikes popping up in the years following her disappearance as a teen had a fair amount of source material for inspiration.
Of course, the selfie as we know it should well be considered separately from the art of self portraiture: One often involves a deliberate composition of elements and a consideration of the desired outcome; the other a throwaway capture of a moment, an impulse, a non-important snapshot among a thousand other snapshots in your phone’s camera roll. But really, do we think Robert Cornelius was concerned about the exact composition of his experimental self portrait? Did the young Romanov princess Anastasia consider the longevity and lasting historical impact of her mirror snap?
Who knows, maybe if they had lived a couple of hundred years later we’d be viewing their prints in galleries, or scrolling through them on social media sites. As I mentioned earlier, maybe it’s just the technology that’s different nowadays. One sure thing, though: the camera as a tool for self-representation is almost as old as the art of photography itself.