Let Me Take a Selfie! 6 Famous Photographers Snap Themselves Before We Ever Did

Long before there were "selfies," famous photographers were taking self-portraits as a form of artistic expression. And you thought you were the selfie master? Oh snap!
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When Oxford Dictionaries announced “selfie” as their 2013 Word of the Year, they gave it this official definition: “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website." The word “selfie” has only been in existence for about a decade. However, just as artists have always painted and drawn their own likenesses (think of Rembrandt, van Gogh, or Frida Kahlo), photographers have been posing for their own cameras since the invention of the photographic process in 1839.

Of course, the tiny cameras in our pocket-sized phones have made photographic self-portraiture quicker, cheaper, and more shareable than ever before. Thanks to the Internet and social media, we see more photographs in a day than we can even count, and these images include many selfies of our friends, family, and favorite celebrities. But our reasons for taking selfies might not have changed so much over the years: We photograph ourselves to preserve memorable moments and to capture the way we look, the way we feel and−most importantly−the way we’d like others to see us.

In these self-portraits by well-known photographers, dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1980s, we can witness artists showing different sides of their identities in amusing, thought-provoking, and surprising ways. 

Take a look at some famous selfies before there were selfies.


Nadar gif

An animation of Nadar's self-portrait. 

Nadar, one of the first and greatest photographers of the 19th century, was renowned for his lifelike and inventive portraits of notable Parisians. For this multiple-image self-portrait, he posed in a swivel chair in front of a camera and turned the chair thirty degrees after each photo was taken. The resulting sequence of pictures is like a portrait-in-round, or even a short film, of the photographer.

Nadar Photo

Nadar's revolving self-portrait, dated circa 1865.

Man Ray

Man Ray Photo

Man Ray's Self-Portrait with Camera. 1931. © 2014 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was a prominent figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements of the 1920s-1930s. He worked in many media, including photography.

Here he poses in profile, adjusting the lens on a camera. Using a technique known as “solarization,” Man Ray exposed the print to a quick flash of light in the darkroom; the result is a mysterious halo effect in the finished image.


Weegee Photo

Weegee, My Reflection in a 42nd St Movie Trick Mirror, ca. 1946. Collection International Center of Photography.

In addition to his famous (and often grisly) photographs of New York crime scenes, Weegee shot more than 1,500 self-portraits over his career.

In this photo, taken in front of the Laffmovie movie theater near New York’s Times Square, his reflection is humorously distorted by the funhouse mirror on the theater’s doors.

Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott Photo

"Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman" by Berenice Abbott, circa 1930/distortion circa 1950. (© 2014 Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics)

Berenice Abbott is best known for her documentary photographs of New York City’s architecture and ever-changing skyline in the 1930s. However, she also photographed many artists, writers and musicians, and she was interested in experimental photographic techniques. To create this self-portrait, she manipulated and bent the paper while processing the image, so that the result was a surprising distortion of her face.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman was her own model for a series of photographs that she called “Untitled Film Stills.” For each photo in this project, she enacted a different feminine stereotype from television or film, such as a seductress, career girl, or lovesick teen, dressing herself in carefully chosen costumes and posing in character. The finished photos, like this one showing Sherman as a bored housewife, blur the line between reality and fiction.

Cindy Sherman Photo

"Untitled Film Still #3" by Cindy Sherman, 1977. (© 2014 Cindy Sherman)

Chuck Close

Chuck Close Photo

Chuck Close. Study for Self-Portrait. 1968. © 2014 Chuck Close

Chuck Close took this black-and-white photo of himself and then used it as the basis for a painted self-portrait (1967-68). This image’s frontal pose and its harsh detail call to mind a driver’s license photograph or a mug shot, since the artist captured his own likeness with brutal honesty − unruly hair, stubble and all.