Last week The Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced a pretty cool thing. Its new Open Content Program makes available hundreds of thousands of digital images for free download and use. There's a lot to sift through, and the possibilities are endless. But it doesn't take long before interesting images jump out.
Like, while browsing the photo collection I found myself face to face with 19th century photographer Gaspard Felix Tournachon (known as "Nadar") and thought: "Wait, is this a ... selfie!?"
It seems silly, but it got me thinking sincerely about the origin of self-portraits. So I called up an expert, Judy Keller, senior curator of photographs at the Getty. Over the phone she talked me through the history and personalities of some of photography's first "selfies" found in this open archive.
In the end, we concluded that it seems like the propulsion to document ourselves is linked to a desire for immortality. But the way we go about preserving ourselves can say a lot about who we are as people.
Here are the results of my incomplete survey of early self-portraiture. Where do you fit in? Are you guilty of turning the camera on yourself? And if so, why do you do it?
Unscientific Self-Portrait Personality Test
The Nadar: Vain Egocentrism
Nadar/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
I am very awesome. Nadar/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
According to curator Judy Keller, Nadar was a very tall guy with lots of red hair and a volatile personality who made selfies because he wanted pictures of himself. "He had quite an ego and a great deal of confidence," she says. "I think he is trying to make himself look as serious and as important as these writers and artists and opera singers, etc., who he was photographing."
The Bayard: Curious Boredom
Hippolyte Bayard/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
I'm just a normal dude doing normal dude things.
Hippolyte Bayard is a regular guy hanging out in his garden taking banal photos of himself. He wasn't as self-conscious as the others, says Keller; "he wasn't interested in new identities." What you see is what you get.
The Fenton: Experimental Role-Playing
Roger Fenton/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
Dressing up makes me feel great.
Roger Fenton was into dressing up for his self-portraits. He dedicated several portrait sessions to re-creating Middle Eastern imagery and posing as an exotic personality. In terms of his selfies, Fenton may be the original LARPer.
The Atget: Introverted Introspection
Eugene Etget/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
Please don't look at me taking a picture of myself.
French photographer Eugene Atget was shy about his selfies. According to Keller, Atget's self-portraits "are more about the photographer getting himself into the picture in a subtle way — it's his camera rather than himself that becomes part of the picture, and it's all about using reflections."
The Hine: Polite Self-Preservation
Lewis Hine/Courtesy of The Getty's Open Content Program
Lewis Hine wasn't all that interested in taking pictures of himself, but when he did he made them professionally and deliberately. "Hine shows you how he worked, his shadow with a hat and overcoat looking very professional with his tripod-mounted camera. ... Hine wanted to be behind the camera instead of in front of it," says Keller.
Yours Truly: Mashup Me
I exist, but please don't look at me too much.
I exist, but please don't look at me too much. @beckyberger/Instagram
After taking a look at my Instagram feed I think I fall somewhere between an Atget and a Hine. I tend to take selfies when I'm traveling alone. Introspection and self-preservation get hold of me and I can't resist the urge to share my existence with the world.