By Annelisa Stephen

A selfie is a self-portrait taken with a smartphone. At least, that’s what I assumed until two weeks ago when I stumbled on an article in The Guardian about the Getty exhibition In Focus: Play. “You do see self-portraits,” curator Arpad Kovacs said of the show, “but they are self-portraits rather than selfies.”

Instantly curious, I asked him to elaborate on the difference (emphasis mine):

The self-portrait and the selfie are two separate, though at times overlapping, efforts at establishing and embellishing a definition of one’s self.

Qualities like medium specificity, deeply rooted histories, and traditions (or lack thereof) that define these efforts only superficially differentiate the two. What has greater weight is the selfie’s inherently replaceable and even disposable quality. If after taking a picture of oneself the results are unsatisfactory, it is easily forgotten and replaced by a new picture.

The self-portrait, whether it is a carefully composed study or created in haste, often contains more decisions than could be easily erased. Calling a self-portrait by Rembrandt a selfie is not only anachronistic, it also negates the carefully calculated set of decisions that created the rendering.

Calling a self-portrait by Rembrandt a selfie is not only anachronistic, it also negates the carefully calculated set of decisions that created the rendering.

This does not mean that selfies cannot be self-portraits, or that selfies by nature require the opposite of calculated intent. An artist could choose to represent him or herself through selfies; however, self-portraits don’t immediately signify selfies.

Not a selfie: Rembrandt Laughing (detail), about 1628, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Oil on copper, 8 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.60

By this reasoning, ephemerality—not just medium or skill—is what makes a Rembrandt self-portrait fundamentally different from, say, a Rembrandt selfie. (If Rembrandt lived today, wouldn’t he be making both?)

A portrait lasts, not because it is better than a selfie but because it is meant to.

For a second perspective, I turned to writer and theorist Alli Burness, founder of the Museum Selfies tumblr. She kindly turned the question into a thought-provoking post on her own blog, here.

Not a selfie! | Photo Courtesy: The New York Times

Not a selfie! | Photo Courtesy: The New York Times

Alli seconded the notion that technology is not the defining factor. “Both selfies and self-portraits are forms of self-representation using technology,” she pointed out. “Smartphones and cameras are types of technology, mirrors and painting are other types.” To her thinking, though, the key difference is not ephemerality, but context and interpretation (again, the bolding is mine):

Self-portraits are created to be read as art, are displayed in museums or galleries, and we are granted permission to view them as texts, functioning independently from the intent of the artist.

Selfies are borne of vernacular photography practices and are brought into museums and galleries by visitors. It is perilous to read selfies in the same way as art, to ignore the context of their social interaction and the intent of the selfie-taker.

It is important to remember these images are shared as part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way. We are allowed to leave these elements out of our reading of artist’s self-portraits.

Selfies are thus less like documents than like speech, snippets of embodied language.

Agreeing, Arpad noted that “selfies promote active discussion and responses that can be instantaneous and—more importantly—in the form of a selfie.” Is this conversational intimacy one reason why looking at strangers’ self-portraits rarely feels uncomfortable, while looking at strangers’ selfies often does? He questioned, however, whether self-portraits are always art. “Many people in the past and present have created self-portraits for reasons other than the purpose of art,” he reflected. “Self-portraits cannot inherently be designated as art any more than doodles or markings on a page can.”

My take: The selfie is a mode of conversation, inherently contextual and often ephemeral. Selfies may also be self-portraits, and both may also be art.


Annelisa Stephen leads the engagement efforts for Digital Getty and is the editor and manager of The Iris.

This article was originally published on The Iris.

Featured Image Source: Unsplash

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