I remember as a child, I loved photos.
Not so much having my picture taken, but watching people pose for their own.
One memory is clear as daylight: perched at the kitchen table, looking out onto our sunny veranda as Dad took a picture of Mum with our newborn baby brother.
I squinted into the sun at my beautiful mother, smiling her megawatt smile towards the camera. Dad was smiling too as he clicked the camera, and that was that. One shot. He was happy, she was happy, and it would be weeks before the roll of film was developed and anyone could, or would, feel otherwise.
In 2016, Golden Age of The Selfie – have we lost the art of posing for a picture?
Self-taken photographic portraits have been around since the invention of the camera.
Humans have always been fascinated with capturing the world around them, which inevitably included themselves. One of my favourites surely must be Buzz Aldrin’s space selfie snapped during the 1966 Gemini 12 Mission, pictured above.
It was so innocent, so fumbled, so gleeful – it seemed to say, look at me! I’m in space!
But it was what it didn’t say that was more significant: unlike the modern selfie, it was not vainglorious. It didn’t say, look at me, I’m a handsome chap! Or, look at me, I’m in space and you’re not!
The narcissistic ‘selfie’ as we know it today, is said to have crept into our common vernacular around 2013.
I personally think my first ever selfie, however, came much earlier than that – circa 2003. It was Nokia camera phone, in high school, for Myspace. Probably in my school uniform. Probably pouting. Probably listening to Blink 182.
Quora agrees on Myspace as the first milestone for selfies.
“From 2006 to 2009, the term “MySpace pic” described an amateurish, flash-blinded self-portrait, often taken in front of a bathroom mirror. Self-portraits shot with cell phones, or “selfies”—cheap-looking, evoking the MySpace era—became a sign of bad taste.”
Initially, taking a selfie was a strange experience.
Grappling with a camera phone, backwards, whilst trying to find your best angle – odd, to say the least.
Little wonder so many MySpace era selfies ended up taken from that high-up angle, looking down, creating an entire generation of forehead-focused self portraits.
But even then, the traditional form of portraiture endured. At the time, digital cameras had gone from being a luxury item to an easily-affordable accessory, and were toted everywhere from school dances to road trips, end-of-year exams to part time jobs at McDonalds.
(In fact, one of my enduring memories from my teenage years was constantly trying to squeeze my chunky digital camera into the tiny, armpit-dwelling handbag that was all the rage circa 2002….)
Together, girls would cluster as a group, arms on hips, boobs thrust forward, with a manically enthusiastic smile. In between shots, hair would be fluffed and flicked, tops tugged down to appropriate cleavage reveal, lipgloss applied, and teeth licked. It wasn’t a process that was taught, necessarily – you just knew what to do between shots. You instinctively knew how to prep, and more importantly, how to pose.
A process that was unchanged since the invention of the camera.
Until, that is, the Kardashians came along.
Kim Kardashian-West is widely considered to be the Queen of the Selfie (and happily claims to be, too). Her extraordinary and unwavering narcissism saw her social media accounts flooded from day one with photo after photo, taken by herself, of herself.
I mean, the woman published a whole book of her selfies, the aptly titled, 'Selfish'.
She pouts, she smiles, she waves; all with her own self-curated filters and angles and crops. She is her own personal photographer.
Needless to say, the word 'selfie' was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I was chatting with a photographer pal of mine recently about the selfie tsunami, and whether or not it has made us a more photogenic generation.
Quite the contrary, it seems. "No one knows how to take a good picture anymore!" he lamented.
"Without looking in a mirror, they actually can't tell what they're faces and body look like, and they always want to see the shot before moving forward. It's so frustrating!"
Ugh, he's SO right.
I am perpetually shocked at how awkward I always look in photos. With a wonky smile and a head crooked on a strange angle, I never know what to do with my hands, or my feet, or my...well, clearly I don't know what to do, full stop.
It brings to mind the myriad of family photo albums at home featuring the soft smiles, relaxed faces, and natural poses of pre-selfie generations. The beautiful imperfection on their settings, faded with sepia tones of mid century snaps. They were so blissfully unaware of how much better they would look with a white border and the '1977' Instagram filter. Oh, wait...
I mean, imagine our Instagram feeds as a family photo album decades from now.
"Mummy, where are there so many photos of your face?"
"Mummy, why are they so many photos of plates with food on them?"
"Mummy, what are these photos with writing over the top of them?"
Sixties vibes to farewell two of my oldest friends from Sydney off on their new adventure...???????? @jessamyzara et @blazet ???? A photo posted by Maggie Kelly (@maggie_kelly_writer) on Feb 26, 2016 at 11:45pm PST
Once upon a time, the motivations behind self-photography were innocent. Artistic, even. People wanted to capture themselves, flaws and all, for a moment in time. Delightful collections of bare-faced subjects gazing intently down the lens dot the history of art.
From Robert Mapplethorpe to Helmut Newton, Vivian Maier to Danny Lyon, the 'selfie' of old had a magical property to it: the self through the eyes of the artist. It was transformative, seeing them through their own eyes.
So why does the modern selfie feel so...vain?
The answer lies in the quantity, not quality. We perform for an audience (our 'followers') which adds a sense of expectation. Suddenly, process is flipped on its head, and instead of capturing a moment of beauty, we create beauty to be captured. This growing awareness of 'the viewer' makes us self-concious, et voila! We become merciless gatekeepers of our own image.
And the fallout from this? An inability to relax and trust either your body or your photographer - because for so long, you have been able to micro-manage both to perfection.
There is no shame in the selfie.
What was, briefly, considered the height of vanity and narcissism, is now the new normal. We love our own faces, and we hate reliquishing control. We demand to be the master of our own image, and this shows with the rampant 'untagging' of bad pictures on social media.
Sure, we're happy to document whole blocks of our lives via images of ourselves in bathroom mirrors, holding a phone out in front of us - but a genuine, authentic snapshot of real life? DELETE IT IMMEDIATELY OR I'M UNFRIENDING YOU.
Did you know there's even a movie made entirely about Selfies? Yup. (Post continues after video)
Flipping back through these family albums, I think of Mum smiling on the veranda in the late afternoon sunlight, Dad smiling as he peers through the lens as I watch on.
The memory, of course, is superior to the actual photograph. Her smile is bright but a little forced, her pose more rigid than I remember. The sun skews what would have been a view of the jacaranda-strewn backyard, and my baby brother on her lap is crying.
It's not the best photo. But it's real, and that's what mattered.