Selfie satisfaction: Today’s selfie is yesterday’s portrait

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The morning after Spain lost to Chile in World Cup play, soccer fan Tony Andres snapped a sour selfie and grumbled on Twitter. “The World Cup will produce more selfies than goals,” he tweeted to #WorldCupSelfies.

He most certainly is correct. The 2014 FIFA World Cup is taking place in Brazil, where soccer fanatics, players and coaches are seemingly producing selfies by the second. The event kicked off with a celebration that featured hundreds of thousands of selfies draped across the field in the “Happiness Flag.” The massive photomosaic, sponsored by Coca-Cola, contained 223,206 soccer selfies and spanned 11,800 square feet.

Beyond Brazil, social media has been flooded with selfies by soccer enthusiasts showing agony and ecstasy and also a lot of boredom and boozing. Most of the images come from smartphones or digital cameras. They are making their way to friends and fans, as well as strangers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

The self-portraits express loyalty to a team and allegiance to a nation. They also help to transform the events in Brazil into global happenings.

The same day that those selfies of sour and grumbling fans of Spain showed up, there were selfies coming out of blood-soaked cities in Iraq and retweets of selfies by Jennifer Lopez and Demi Lovato minus makeup. There also was strange news of a warning from Madison police against posting #naked selfies.

The selfie as portrait. As documentary journalism.  As celebrity pop shot.  As porn.

The image-makers may be using new tools and reaching vast audiences, and the “selfie” may be a relatively new term, but self-portraiture is a very old form of art and method of expression.

Old style

Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Turban, painted in 1433, is described in art history books as one of the earliest panel self-portraits. In medieval and Renaissance works, artists may appear as faces in their crowds. Rembrandt painted a range of self-portraits in the 17th century. The world treasures self-portraits from artists as diverse as Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Marie-Denise Villers, Raphael, Anthony Van Dyck, Gerard Sekoto, Gustave Courbet and, of course, Vincent Van Gogh, who painted himself dozens of times as a means of self-expression but also because he could not afford models. Writing to his brother about a painting he dedicated to Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh said, “The third picture this week is a portrait of myself, almost colourless, in ashen tones against a background of pale veronese green.”

American photographer Robert Cornelius created a daguerreotype of himself in 1839 that is one of the earliest photographs of a person and possibly the first “selfie,” though he recorded it as “the first light picture ever taken.” An early self-photograph by a teenager was taken by 13-year-old Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna and sent to a friend in 1914, four years before she was executed by the Bolshevik secret police.

There’s also a long history of self-portraits by average Janes and Joes. The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, recently exhibited “445 Portraits of a Man,” a collection of photobooth self-images taken by Franklyn Swantek from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The individual in the photos had been a mystery until a news story about the collection caught the attention of a man living in Minden, Nevada, who recognized his Uncle Franklyn, who had run Swantek Photo Service in Michigan for years.

Susan Sidlauskas, who co-curated the exhibit, said Swantek was able to elevate photomatics into museum-quality conceptual art.

“There’s a twinkle in his eye that suggests he had a reason for holding on to all those photos,” she said.

This summer, the museum is exhibiting “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” an examination of the portrait as a social medium, as a way of linking people together, which is what NASA accomplished with its Global Selfie from Earth Day.

Worldwide Hug

On April 22, NASA invited people to step outside to take a selfie and share it with the world on social media. NASA created a new view of the planet made entirely of those photos, a mosaic consisting of 36,000 individual images from 113 countries and regions — Antarctica to Yemen.

“We were overwhelmed to see people participate from so many countries,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the Earth science division at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“It’s like being part of a worldwide hug,” said Kimberly Rawlings of Chicago, who said her image is included in the Global Selfie. “The cranks who say we’re narcissistic for posting selfies, who complain about me-obsessed millennials, they miss the point of them.”

And there are critics of the selfie phenomenon. Bloggers have complained that girls posting selfies are being exploited. Plastic surgeons say the selfie trend is increasing demand for rhinoplasty, hair transplants and eyelid surgery. Mental health professionals have suggested a link between body dysmorphic disorder and a compulsion to take selfies.

But there’s little science behind the medical and mental health assertions and easy rebuttals to the exploitation assertion.

“Taking selfies, that’s empowering, that’s being proud of yourself,” said Wisconsin pediatric counselor Helen Cox, noting that one recent survey of young women found that 65 percent said taking selfies boosted their confidence. “When you share selfies, that’s bringing you into a community of people.”

Sometimes the community is small, a circle of friends.

Sometimes the community is massive, a world of Earth Day celebrants or World Cup soccer fans.


Did you know?

Generally, under copyright law, unless there is an agreement to the contrary or a photo is shot as part of a job, it belongs to the creator, the person who pressed the button on the camera. And the owner holds exclusive rights to display, copy, use, produce, or distribute the creation. The subject in a photograph has some rights but not ownership, as do social media services where photographs are shared.

Add an app

Popular portraiture apps for smartphones and tablets:

• CamMe: Take photos using hand gestures. Can take several photos sequentially, like the old photo booths. Enhance photos with cutouts. Easy sharing options. 

• Aviary: Touch up with red-eye removal. Add or remove color with splash. Add drama with sharpen. Stylize with filters and stickers.

• Mextures: Apply film grain, textures, light leaks and gradients to images — from landscapes to portraits.

• Facetune: Touch up portraits Hollywood-style. Remove blemishes. Even out skin tone. Brighten teeth. Color gray hair. Change eye color.

• Instagram: Apply filters. Easy share options. Front and back camera support. Add depth of field.

• Frontback: Shoot from the front and the back of the camera at the same time for the full story.

• Slingshot: From Facebook. Allows users to send photos, to friends, who must reciprocate before
viewing the photo.