THROWBACK THURSDAY: The First Selfie

Ah, the selfie. Perhaps the defining feature of 21st century pop culture. The selfie evolved from people taking photos in mirrors to awkwardly holding digital cameras pointed at themselves, to its current state. Today’s phones are designed to deliver excellent results using their front-facing cameras, once thought of as an add-on. I think it says a lot about our culture that there’s so much emphasis on taking pictures of ourselves, and doing so without asking anyone else to help.

The word “selfie” has been with us about a decade .Ask the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and others. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the world was a better place when it wasn’t. But it is. And this, according to several sources, is the very first one.

Not that many others hadn’t painted portraits of themselves, but photographically speaking, it was Robert Cornelius who, in 1839, pointed a camera at himself for the first time. Selfies weren’t quite so impromptu back then, as photographic exposures took minutes if not hours to achieve. None of that explains why Mr. Cornelius didn’t feel it worthwhile to comb his hair. Still, his slightly worried expression does far more than his tonsorial discombobulation (see the words we throw at you!) to show his mood at the time.

Sadly, Robert Cornelius did not rocket to fame as a result of taking the first selfie, even though it also may have been the very first photographic portrait of any kind taken in the Western Hemisphere. Little is known of the rest of his life other than his relative success in making lamps in the pre-electric era. He passed away in 1893, long before selfies came into vogue.

My first selfie

The first documented “selfie” I am aware of in my own history was taken about 2002. It was taken with an APS camera, which was a film format that existed for a short time. APS cameras used similar film to 35mm, but the negatives were smaller, which made for smaller pictures. It was the spiritual successor to the old 126 and 110 cameras of the 1970s, which promised photos from a smaller device. The APS camera was literally wiped from existence by digital cameras in about 2004. I remember taking the shot and hoping it looked good. I used last shot on a roll that I wanted get developed so it wasn’t too big of a risk.

Not that I take a lot of selfies these days, but I will say the image looks quite a bit different than it did in 2002.

Old pictures always look so serious

In early photographs, by the way, photographers discouraged people from smiling. This has led to the impression that everyone in the 19th century was miserable. That’s not true. It’s more a function of the long exposure time required by portait photography. Exposure times dropped to mere seconds in the 1860s. Even then, it was still quite a bit easier to keep from moving when you plastered a foul-looking grimace on your face..

It is that fact more than any other that explains why the first selfie looks so grim. It’s also devoid of photobombs, as that phenomenon didn’t start until quite a few years later.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.