I recently posted a photo of myself on Instagram with a caption about how we learn something new each time we take a photo of ourselves or even when someone else takes it.

I liked this particular photo because I could see myself clearly. It was a frozen moment between vulnerability and confidence -- themes I constantly explore in my work. And, although most of the resulting comments were kind, I received some negative flack that got me thinking deeper about self-portraits and selfies and why we take them. I began asking questions like, “Why are we so motivated to take photos of ourselves?”and “Can a selfie relate to art?”

A selfie I took at the beginning of my solo cross country trip in August of 2015.

A selfie I took at the beginning of my solo cross country trip in August of 2015.

The first argument people jump to when trying to explain the motivation behind selfies is our unchecked global narcissism. It’s a common argument, used by sources like The New York Times and the BBC. And I agree to an extent, but, to me, selfies are meant to capture us in a moment: how we look, how we feel, where we are. I’ll send an early morning selfie to my mom, who is stationed in Afghanistan, and she’ll send one back, allowing us to share time when we can’t be together in person. Selfies also allow me to document a trip or experience when no one else is around. But they go further than just allowing us to capture time. Selfies can also be a form of control over our lives, lettings us choose how we’re perceived. They can be mirrors that show us growth and change in ourselves. And, without question, they can be a form of low-level (or high-level) narcissism that gives us a boost of confidence (or not) when we need it.

What’s also interesting about selfies is how they bypass generation gaps and even social norms. From kids to centennials, selfies seem to fit just about everyone -- something they share with their predecessor, the painted self-portrait.

Historically, artists used self-portraits as proof of their unique talent and artistic prowess. They were also convenient painting practice, as the model worked for free and was always available. But, the motivation to paint a self-portrait differed by the artist.

Some artists painted self-portraits to express inner turmoil, personal fears, and even their attempts at making sense of the world around them. Take Mexican painter, FRIDA KAHLO (1907–1954,) as the perfect example. Known for the magical realism in her self-portraits, Kahlo’s works depicted her reaction to lifelong health problems and a volatile marriage. She used symbolism and traditional Mexican motifs to tell her personal story, resulting in paintings we now treasure. Like Frida, many people grappling with emotional struggles today turn to art, oftentimes in the form of selfies, to process and heal.

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo, 1940. 

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo, 1940. 

Many artists also painted self-portraits to control how they were perceived by others and how they perceived themselves. Take for example Spanish master, DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ (1599-1660.) The leading artist in the court of King Felipe IV, Velázquez was one of the most important painters of Spain’s Golden Age. His famous 1645 self-portrait portrays him as a powerful, educated, and successful man, exactly what he was, and exactly how he wanted to be seen. In present day, I believe many of us can relate to this motivation. We seem to perpetually strive to control our self-concept, especially on social media.

Before selfies, self-portraiture was also a way of capturing the self at a precise moment of growth, as evidenced by the German painter and print maker ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528.) He painted self-portraits over the course of forty years, following his personal growth from boyhood to manhood. Self-portraits evoke and reveal much more than just physical changes, they show us how we evolve. This seems to be one of my motivations to take selfies -- to learn more about myself.

From the self-portrait to the selfie, our motivations to produce them haven’t changed much, but I’m curious as to what you think. Since technology has given us the possibility of infinite selfies, but also created a sense of impermanence (think Snapchat and 24-hour online videos,) does the idea of “quantity over quality” cheapen us, categorize us as narcissists? Do we hold other people’s selfies up to our own reflections in the mirror -- making them simply tools of comparison? Are we using selfies to live in the moment, or living to simply record the moment? And who’s really even living in the moment? The one taking the photo or the one viewing it? Lastly, if pictures are really equal to a thousand words, then what are we saying when we post?

Other painters known for their self-portraits:

Modern Self-Portrait/Portrait Artists:

Written by Heather Day and Kate Holthouser.