Reflect on Portraiture: Selfies as Art

Yes, you read correctly, this is a blog about selfies. I promise it is worth reading and I will not try and convince you that every selfie is a work of art. Instead, I am suggesting that a work of art could be created in the form of a selfie.

Art or Visual Culture?

To me, selfies fall into the category of visual culture, as opposed to fine art. Visual culture is a term which is difficult to define as it describes so many different things. I would describe visual culture simply as culture which is visible, it is all around us in advertising, films, television, and the media. Or, in other words, it’s cultures method of representing itself through a visual medium. Art is also an example of visual culture, but not every type of visual culture is art. I would say that every selfie is an example of visual culture, but it is the intention of the selfie taker which can elevate it into art.

Petra Collins, from  Selfie  series, c.2013,© 2017 PETRA COLLINS.

Petra Collins, from Selfie series, c.2013,© 2017 PETRA COLLINS.


Selfies have a bad reputation; selfie takers are often labelled as vain, narcissistic individuals, and selfies are considered frivolous. But is this fair? Selfies are all about self-fashioning, or the construction of identity through images, and this is a concept that goes way back. Isabella d’Este from last week was a pro at self-fashioning, and almost every portrait ever painted has some degree of image consciousness related to it. However, these historic portraits are not viewed with the same disdain as contemporary selfies.

I think some of the negative feeling towards selfies stems from a lack of respect for the demographic of selfie takers, mainly teenagers and young people, more often than not girls and women. The rise of the front camera has allowed people who, in art, have historically occupied the passive role of model to reclaim control over their image. Personally, I think this is fantastic, now anyone with a smartphone has the power to construct their own image.

In some ways, an Instagram account could be a very good portrait of a person and not just through selfies. Posts of places, food and other people give an indication of how we want to be perceived. However, as with most portraits, Instagram is idealised; it is a heavily curated representation of reality.

So, traditional oil on canvas portraits and selfies have more in common than you might think. They are both mediums through which a person can fashion their identity and take charge of their image, and they both involve a degree of idealisation.

Petra Collins, from  Selfie  series, c.2013,© 2017 PETRA COLLINS.

Petra Collins, from Selfie series, c.2013,© 2017 PETRA COLLINS.

Representation and Communication

It is easy to see selfies as a natural progression from self-portraiture, but after reading How to Talk about Art History’s blog on self-portraits and selfies I was persuaded that selfies are actually “their own genre and their own medium” with only a few similarities to self-portraiture. One of the characteristics which differentiates selfies from self-portraits, is a selfie’s ability to function as a form of communication as well as representation. Think of Snapchat and Instagram, on these apps we send or upload images of ourselves for our friends to see and comment on. This functionality as a means of communication further convinces me that selfies are a form of visual culture, but can selfies ever be art?

Selfies in/as Art

Selfies can and have been the subject of art, for example Petra Collins uses selfie culture as subject matter in her series Selfie. In her words she is: “examining selfie culture in teenage girlhood and the power for young women to create, curate, and distribute their own imagery.” Selfies can also be taken by artists, Cindy Sherman’s Instagram is a great example. Sherman does not see her selfie taking as artistic practice, saying: “I don’t think it at all competes with my serious work. They’re just fun, like a little distraction”. But I believe that in the hands of the right artist, selfies could be an exciting medium for exploring portraiture.

I see this sort of work as a kind of Contemporary Pop Art. Pop artists took inspiration from popular culture, either in subject matter or materiality, and elevated pop culture to high art status. Selfies are a form of current pop culture; Collins has already started using selfie taking as subject matter, therefore it makes sense that the medium of selfie taking could also inspire interesting fine art practice.

So, not every selfie is art but if taken by an artist with a specific artistic intention I see no reason that a selfie cannot be elevated to the status of art.

Feeling perky

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Colman, David. “Me, Myself and iPhone.” The New York Times, June 30, 2010.

Farago, Jason. “Cindy Sherman Takes Selfies (as Only She Could) on Instragram.” The New York Times, August, 6, 2017.

Mullooly, Shanae. “The Self-Portrait to the Selfie.” Shanae Mullooly, June 6, 2017.

Murray, Derek Conrad. “Notes to self: the visual culture of selfies in the age of social media.” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6: 490-516.

Oredsson, Ellen. “Are Self Portraits and Selfies the Same Thing?” How to Talk About Art History, September 19, 2016.

Russeth, Andrew. “Facetime with Cindy Sherman: The Artist on Her “Selfie” Project for W, and What’s Behind Her Celebrated Instagram.” W Magazine, November 6, 2017.