And Now There Is a 'National Selfie Portrait Gallery'

The contemporary version of the age-old self-portrait gets the gallery treatment.

Rembrandt did it. So did Raphael. And Van Gogh. And Kahlo and Beale and Courbet. The self-portrait, as a form, has been around almost as long as portraiture itself has—a testament to artists' obsession not only with form and function and beauty, but also with themselves.

Photography, along with everything else it did to and for art, lowered the barriers to the form, allowing people who lacked painterly talent or tools to engage in the time-honored art of the selfie. Almost as soon as cameras became common, selfies did, too. 

Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna uses a mirror and a Kodak Brownie box camera to take a self-portrait on October 1914. (Wikimedia Commons)
Gunner Thomas Charles Richmond Baker takes a mirror selfie in 1917. (Imgur)
The chemist Robert Cornelius takes a selfie in 1839. (Wikimedia Commons)

So while "selfie" as a word may be a recent addition to the official lexicon—and while it may have spawned various taxonomies and sub-categories (the mirror selfie, the intentionally unattractive selfie, the with-others selfie, the solitary selfie, the duckface selfie, the hot-dog-legs selfie)—the concept itself is very, very old. The difference now, of course, is that anyone who has a smartphone—or, for that matter, anyone who has a camera and access to an obliging mirror—can take a self-portrait. And incremental advances in photographic technologies—the front-facing camera that came with the launch of the iPhone 4, mobile-photo-sharing apps like Instagram—helped the selfie to gain new traction in the public imagination. 

International Space Station astronaut Aki Hoshide takes a spacewalk-selfie. (NASA)

Which is all a way of saying that selfies aren't just self-documentation; they're also art. Art that has a place in the long story of the self-portrait.

And curators are beginning to recognize them as such. Today, London's Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair is launching a new installation: the National Selfie Gallery. (Actually, technically, the National #Selfie Gallery.) And it's pretty much exactly what you'd imagine it to be: a curated collection of selfies. In this case, however, the selfies are short-form videos, commissioned from 19 emerging artists from both the U.S. and the E.U. The videos (each no more than 30 seconds in length) are installed on two screens that display the films in rotation. They were selected "specifically for their established practices, ranging from poetic internet confessionals to humorous commentaries on exhibitionism and experimental new-media portraiture." 

In other words, they celebrate the selfie not just as a mode of self-expression, but also as art of a more transcendent variety. "Self-portraiture is the most democratic creative medium available," the installation's curators, Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina, explain, "both as a performative outlet for the social self and an intimate vehicle of personal catharsis, for artists and non-artists alike."

And as, obviously, a vehicle for duckface. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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