News + Features

8 Key Moments in the History of The Selfie

May 13, 2022

By Hillary K. Grigonis

The smartphone’s front-facing camera may have popularized the selfie, but the act of taking a photo of yourself dates well before the invention of the telephone. In fact, the first self-portraits, or “selfies” were taken well before the first phone call. Some of the earliest photographs were, in fact, self-portraits.

The self-portrait, or selfie, is integrated deep into the history of photography itself, from the moment the first daguerreotype artists decided that they, too, should be recorded in a photograph. But, selfies have come a long way, from sitting still in front of your own camera for 15 minutes to holding out a smartphone at arm’s length for a split second. These are some of the key moments in history that turned the self-portrait into the selfie.

the first selfie, a daguerreotype, by and of Robert Cornelius.
Self-portrait daguerreotype taken by Robert Cornelius. Image Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

1. A selfie by daguerreotype in 1839. Robert Cornelius, an American photographer, took a daguerreotype of himself in 1839. Taken two years after the invention of the daguerreotype but just months after Daguerre shared his invention with the world, the image is thought to be both the first selfie and one of the first photographs of a person. The image was taken in Philadelphia. Prior to the invention of photography, painters were known to create images of themselves, with the first known example being a self portrait by Jan Van Eyck in 1433.

2. A multiple exposure selfie. Using the pano mode on a smartphone to appear several times in the same selfie isn’t as new as you might think. Using multiple exposures rather than panos, Canadian portrait photographer Hannah Maynard appeared multiple times in her own selfies she took in the 1880s.

3. The first mirror selfie. The task of taking a photograph in a mirror also became common well before the self portrait morphed into the word “selfie”. The image above of an unknown woman is considered the first known self-portrait in a mirror, taken in the early 1900s. The camera is even visible—it’s a Kodak Brownie box camera.

4. Selfies skip the tripod. Some consider selfies to be only those taken with an outstretched hand, rather than in a mirror or with a tripod. The earliest known instance of  holding a camera backwards at arm’s length is Joseph Byron Clayton’s 1909 selfie. He also took a “groupie” a few years later, in 1920, of the five men that worked for his studio, Byron Company on a rooftop in New York.

5. Selfies first become accessible to teenagers. Selfies are notably common among teenagers. The first teenager thought to snap a selfie is Anastasia Nikolaevna, a member of the Russian royal family, taken in a mirror at age 13 in 1913. The image was also taken with a Kodak Brownie, a camera credited to making photography simple enough for non-professionals.

6. The term selfie is first coined. The actual word selfie is believed to have originated in Australia in 2002. A man shared a picture of himself in an online forum to document an injury to his face after a drunk fall on some stairs.

7. Smartphones added selfie cameras. Prior to 2003, selfies were taken with tripods and timers, using mirrors, or blindly holding the camera up and hoping you were in the frame. That changed when smartphones began adding a front-facing camera, the first ones dating back to 2003.

8. Selfie becomes dictionary official. While the term became widely used much earlier, Oxford Dictionary named Selfie the Word of the Year in 2013.

Related Reading: