Keep Taking Those Selfies: Talk Traces Popular Trend Throughout History

“More than one million selfies were taken each day in 2014, and more men than women admit to retouching all their self images before posting,”  Peggy Phelan said. 

Phelan, a Stanford professor of drama and English, gave a creative and insightful speech titled, “Selfies: The Past and Future Of Self Portraits” Feb. 6 at Scripps College’s Boone Recital Hall. 

A room filled with students, faculty and members of the community listened intently to Phelan speak about the origins and future of the selfie. Arguing that selfies originated from photographic and painted self-portraits of the past, Phelan started her speech by reporting the phenomenal statistics about the
sheer number of selfies taken today.

The audience audibly ahh’d at Phelan’s shocking figures. She
continued on, listing more statistics about the popularity of
the selfie in today’s society, continuing her speech by describing the
comical and ‘technical’ terms of the selfie world.

“A group selfie is sometimes called an ‘usy’ or a ‘groupsy,’” she said.

Phelan’s speech provided factual information explaining the history and trajectory of the selfie, but, said Scripps philosophy professor Yuval Avnur, “I don’t think she was there to provide any simple or straightforward claim about selfies.”

“I think she was more about giving us the tools to think of them ourselves, and for that I thought it was a great presentation,” Avnur added.

Phelan more seriously argued that selfies are used as a way
to capture the past, and that self-portraits once functioned as the selfie of history. She focused on four famous artists to explain the significant
trajectory of the selfie.

Alice Mullin SC ’17 found Phelan’s exploration of the selfie as an evolving mode of self-expression to be a compelling part of her speech.

“We think of selfies as being a modern thing, and there is a
lot of debate about the point of selfies, but they are actually better
understood if you go back and look at the whole history of the dichotomy of the
inner and the outer self that’s been portrayed in art in various forms, like
painting and photography, and now social media,” Mullin said.

Phelan presented famous artwork from Frida Kahlo, Andy
Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman. She claimed that Kahlo’s
self-portraits portrayed multiple images of the self, and moreover, that Kahlo’s
paintings embodied a separation between the inner and outer self.

Phelan extensively discussed the significance of Andy
Warhol’s photographic self-portraits. She showed many of Warhol’s famous photographs, claiming that Warhol was obsessed with the
universal quality of the photograph—he was fascinated with the idea that the
camera opened up the possibility for anyone to become an artist.

Phelan next examined the significance of Cindy
Sherman’s artwork in relation to the selfie. Sherman reproduces famous
paintings from the past and inserts herself into the reproduced image,
attempting to challenge patriarchal expression.

“By inserting herself into the history of representation, and
by putting herself into the actual visual field, she is suggesting that the
painting is the fiction but also that the history is fiction,” Phelan said.

Phelan argued that these artists and their self-portraits
anticipated the popularity and significance of the modern selfie. Phelan,
however, alludes to a major differentiation between the modern selfie and self-portraits
from the past: The sheer speed of taking a selfie allows it to be part of the
past, present and future all at the same time. 

“I thought what was striking was that she was talking about
the doubleness of now,” Scripps professor of art Nancy Macko said. “That at the same time the past is receiving, the future
is arriving, and that is what the selfie is marking.”

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