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Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie

We live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching.

This article was originally posted on vulture.com.

1. Defining a new form.

We live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.

Genres arise relatively rarely. Portraiture is a genre. So is still-life, landscape, animal painting, history painting. (They overlap, too: A portrait might be in a seascape.) A genre possesses its own formal logic, with tropes and structural wisdom, and lasts a long time, until all the problems it was invented to address have been fully addressed. (Genres are distinct from styles, which come and go: There are Expressionist portraits, Cubist portraits, Impressionist portraits, Norman Rockwell portraits. Style is the endless variation within genre.)

These are not like the self-portraits we are used to. Setting aside the formal dissimilarities between these two forms—of framing, of technique—traditional photographic self-portraiture is far less spontaneous and casual than a selfie is. This new genre isn’t dominated by artists. When made by amateurs, traditional photographic self-portraiture didn’t become a distinct thing, didn’t have a codified look or transform into social dialogue and conversation. These pictures were not usually disseminated to strangers and were never made in such numbers by so many people. It’s possible that the selfie is the most prevalent popular genre ever.

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