Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839)

Today the Oxford Dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2013 to be “selfie”, which they define as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Although the rampant proliferation of the technique is quite recent, the “selfie” itself is far from being a strictly modern phenomenon. Indeed, the photographic self-portrait is surprisingly common in the very early days of photography exploration and invention, when it was often more convenient for the experimenting photographer to act as model as well. In fact, the picture considered by many to be the first photographic portrait ever taken was a “selfie”. The image in question was taken in 1839 by an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia named Robert Cornelius. Cornelius had set his camera up at the back of the family store in Philadelphia. He took the image by removing the lens cap and then running into frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back he wrote “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

Housed at: Wikimedia Commons | From: Library of Congress
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: No Additional Rights
Download: Right click on image or see source for higher res versions






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  • First Night Design

    Handsome young man, too!

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      Yeah, not bad looking for a 19th-century midwestern dude! Would be cool to see what his descendants (if he had any) think of this pic!

      • First Night Design

        Yes! He looks a little like a cross between a young Tom Berenger & Heath Ledger.

      • April McCool

        He’s not a midwesterner! Didn’t you read the article. He’s from Philadelphia and buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

  • bruno

    qué guapo! (handsome)

  • Karen ann Donnachie

    Oh For The Love of Selfies. I’m sorry to object, but while yes, this image of Robert Cornelius may be the first American photographic self-portrait, and worthy of much attention, it is not a selfie. The selfie has established itself as its own discrete genre of image, it is formally distinct from previous forms of self-representation in its impulse, technique, delivery and consumption. This image is as much a selfie as Durer’s renaissance self-portraits in oil.