It seems that everyone between the ages of 12 and 35 is obsessed with “selfies” these days — those ubiquitous, quick snapshots of one’s own bad self. Miriam-Webster added the word to its dictionary this year, giving academic credence to the term that is really nothing more than a shortened, slangified version of “self-portrait.”
The origin of the the selfie — a self-portrait, actually — predates the cellphone era, the Boomer Era and even the dawn of photography by several hundred years. Artists were painting and drawing self-portraits as far back as there were mirrors, and possibly even before that. Self-portraits were cheaper for artists because they didn’t have to hire a model, and were often used to perfect techniques. These selfies also allowed them the ideal subject to relate something about their own personality and/or art. A vast quantity of self-portraits are scattered throughout art history, but one of the most famous series is probably those by Rembrandt van Rijn. We know him by his first name only, Rembrandt, a shortened version not unlike the word “selfie” itself.
Rembrandt is known to have created nearly one hundred drawings, etchings and paintings of himself throughout his life. Taken together, they represent not only his physical appearance from the ages of 22 through 63, but of his growth in prosperity and personality. We see his humble beginning, cocky mid-career and pensive older years. His selfies show us his life, without words. If he had access to a camera in his life, would the resulting series have been as fascinating? Mister B can see room for debating on both sides of the question.
The parents of Baby Boomers were perhaps the first generation that widely owned a family camera. Prior to that time, individual and family portraits were taken mainly by professional photographers in studios, dating back to the beginning of the medium. Cameras were large, bulky and expensive, and taking photos required specific knowledge and skills, not to mention developing the negatives and prints which entailed handling chemicals in a darkroom. The Great Depression probably also held down the growth of individual camera ownership, despite the introduction of Kodachrome film in 1935. In 1941, Kodak launched Kodacolor negative film, and in 1948 Edwin Lands’ Polaroid camera was widely marketed. So after the War, the Baby Boom provided the perfect opportunity for the proliferation of cameras.
Mister Boomer feels his family’s treatment of portrait photography — which was far from a selfie — was pretty typical for his area and era. That is, for most of his early life, the family owned one Kodak box camera. Throughout the 1950s, the camera was used to shoot black & white film. Mister B recalls first seeing color film used in the same camera in the early 1960s. The prints produced in the era of that early color film is recognized today as that yellow-tint style that some cellphone apps can duplicate for your own instant “old school” Kodacolor look.
Pictures were taken, usually of the whole family rather than an individual, and only at specific milestones during the year: Christmas, Easter, Communion, Confirmation, Bar Mitzvah, birthday, prom, graduation, weddings and tourist shots on vacation. As such, a single roll of film might reside in a camera for an entire year. In Mister B’s experience, an individual got special focus only when the event was a birthday or graduation. All other times, other family members would be present in the pictures. It was also an era before the wide use of self-timers on cameras. That is why in all the family pictures of Mister B’s early days, his father is never in the photo … he was the one taking the picture.
In fact, men were the de facto picture takers in most boomer households. Evidently cameras became the domain of the male the same way the backyard grill did. That didn’t change much until the late 1960s and early ’70s. By the time Mister B took his first college photography course in 1971, half his class were women. He wonders what the ratio would have been a decade earlier. And no, he never took a self-portrait in the class.
Despite dozens of Mister Boomer family photos, there is not a self-portrait among them, even after self-timers were built into most cameras in the 1970s. Is this a reflection on our generation’s emphasis on family before self, and conversely, does the selfie reflect on the current generation? To some degree, probably. Yet Mister B, as an aging boomer, is mystified by the desire of people to constantly take these self-conscious face grabs, and even more mystified by the selfie of one’s own junk, trunk and funk. Time marches on, Mister B is reminded, and times change, so you shouldn’t criticize what you can’t understand. Nonetheless, Mister B can say with a fair degree of confidence that we wouldn’t be talking about Rembrandt’s selfies today with the same degree of art historical exploration if he decided to picture himself in the buff.
Did you take self-portraits in your early days, boomers? What is your take on the selfie explosion of today?