The creation of the first selfie is commonly attributed to Robert Cornelius in 1839. When viewing the photo, it’s clear to see why it resonates so strongly with modern selfie culture. His vacant expression and disheveled hair coupled with the grainy, off-color image quality seem a lot like something that would appear under the hashtag #hipsterlyfe on Instagram. The similarities between Robert’s image and todays popular selfie aesthetic, however, are merely coincidental. Robert was a silversmith by trade and had a basic education in chemistry. When this photo was taken, Robert was testing a method he had devised of using a chemical reaction between a reagent, a metal plate, and the natural environmental lighting to create an image. Because this reaction was so slow, he had to hold this position for up to fifteen minutes before the image would form. Development time is the very reason that so many portraits from the 1800s feature people with serious or vacant expressions. It’s nearly impossible to hold a smile for 15 minutes straight without looking like a psychopath. Knowing all of these factors, it’s clear that Robert’s intentions were never to take a great selfie. He merely wanted to verify that his photographic method worked. While his work was certainly a valuable contribution to photographic technology, this image is far from culturally relevant.
After considering the circumstances behind the creation of Robert’s famous photograph, continuing to credit him as the inventor of a cultural trend would be missing the point. Sure, he was technically the first person to take a photographic image of himself, but doesn’t the term “selfie” carry value beyond its technical definition? Technically a tomato is a fruit, but the value it would add to a fruit salad is negligible at best.
“Selfie” was the oxford dictionary’s word of the year in 2013. They chose it not because it was an efficient way to describe a photographic method but because the selfie represents a cultural shift that has taken place. We are now living in a world where we have the ability to capture, document and share every moment of every day of our lives. Capturing an image of your smiling face against a backdrop of thousands of screaming fans at a concert says so much more than a simple image of the event. We aren’t just taking pictures to say “hey, a thing happened”. We’re taking snapshots of our lives and yelling to the world: “Hey world! I was a part of something!”
Edwin Land not only understood our desire to create visual documentation of our lives, but he also gave us the tools to do so. This man co-founded the Polaroid Camera Co and gave us the first instant camera. His invention was much simpler than competing cameras of the time period. In many ways it was much more restricted as well. For example, instead of a manual focusing method that would have required the user to stand behind the camera and use the viewfinder, he opted to use a “fixed” focus method which only produced clear images when the subjects were physically close to the camera lens. The instant film used in the polaroid camera sacrificed color accuracy and durability in order to give the user instant gratification. It was these very deficiencies that actually grew into desirable traits. The use of Instagram’s grainy, off-hue filters used in many selfies exemplify the impact that Edwin’s creation has had on our society.
Sure, Edwin Land may not have been the first person to take a photo of himself, but his polaroid camera was the first device that made selfies possible. Even though these products are no longer manufactured and we have moved on to using cellphones and apps, the innovation of the polaroid camera continues to hold significant cultural relevance to the selfie generation.