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
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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.

    • Friknik

      No body gives a f*ck. It’s an overly narcissistic act. PERIOD. You’re making it sound like science or art terminology. Get a life…

    • lily thibert

      Yes That is true but this is with a camera its considered phototagraphy while with oils it would be more of a painting

      • Karen ann Donnachie

        My point is that the term ‘selfie’ should not be applied to just any photographic self-portrait, it is a genre specific to this century. The selfie, unlike any preceeding form of photographic self-portraiture is necessarily networked, it is created with the distribution and replication (audience) in mind. It is an act of belonging.

  • kelly blak moffat

    wow this is amazing

  • awesomeness

    He messed up this generation!!!!!!!!!!!!!! lol!!!!

  • David Arturo Rodriguez

    jajajajjajajajaja xDDDD

  • Andrew Sneddon

    This is not a selfie. Selfie’s, genuine selfie, are hand held shots of oneself. Taking a snap of yourself through a mirror is not a selfie. Setting the camera to take the shot while you sit, is not a selfie, narcissistic, look at me, snaps aren’t selfie’s either.

    A selfie is a mindful documentary photo of one’s self, of a time and place.

    The first genuine selfie (had no name at the time) was in the early 1990’s. The shot was taken by a Pentax K1000 single reflex camera, f2, 15th of a second, 400asa black & white 35mm film. 400asa. A Selfie is a conscious hand-held self-portrait documenting one’s time and place at any given time.

    The first image is as formally described. The second first double selfie 1991. Third 1992. Forth image 1993. Fifth image was taken in Griffith NSW, in an orange orchid on the 11th of September 2001 commonly known as 9/11.

    These are how the creator, of this type of image, intended them to look, place and time. It has become corrupted by the ease of digital photography, morphing from the original time-and-place self-portrait, to the ever narrowing view of unimaginative narcissist, with no style, class or presence of any artistic temperament.

  • Aggelos Agnostic

    That’s so ironic,the fact that the first selfie ever taken by a person was by a pioneer of photography one art of the nine good arts(architecture,sculpture,paint,poetry,music,dance,cinema,photography,comics)and nowadays is used to be taken by instagram and facebook sluts! what a waste!robert cornelius would be shamed about it!

  • Pedro Garcia

    Dont you know how to read? He was from philly, and last time I checked Philly is in the mid Atlantic?

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Excuse me? I’ve been to Pennsylvania (either Pittsburgh or Philly) many a time, and it is nowhere near the mid-Atlantic—it’s in the Midwest. I should know,because I”m a Midwesterner,too. You need to re-chack a map of the U.S. again. I can’t believe I’m replying to some post I made a year ago—geesh!

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Uh,no—people have taken pictures of themselves since photography was created. So there is nothing new about “selfies”, as we call them now. It’s only become more of a narcissistic act since people can take pics of themselves on their phones now.

  • im from philly

    Bud, I live in Philly, It’s not in the midwest at all… It’s north east…Ya’ll need to get your facts straight

  • Stargzer

    Michelle, Pittsburgh is almost in Ohio but not quite; Philadelphia is on the other side of the state right next to New Jersey, whose coastline was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Philly is just a bit South of the place where General George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Eve and disturbed a bunch of hung-over Hessians. The Delaware River flows a short distance down to the Delaware Bay, which opens onto the Atlantic Ocean. Philadelphia is also in the middle third of the Atlantic coast. You might also check the Wikipedia article on the Midwestern United States. The easternmost state in that map is Ohio. Pennsylvania is not included. That’s not one of the controversial article on Wikipedia.