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

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionaries announced their word of the year 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 (if defined as being a photograph one takes of oneself) 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. Setting up his camera at the back of the family store in Philadelphia, Cornelius 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 of the image he wrote “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

  • 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.

        • Bob Wager

          You’re wrong. selfie is a selfie is a selfie. whether you attach your phone to an and of a stick you hide up your ass or it is a Polaroid or a photo booth or the new “Selfie Station!” it is STILL taking one’s own photograph. Whether you share the POS or not has nothing to do with it. Selfie is all about ME, not about US. They are SELF PORTRAITS. Shortened to SELFIE so that stunted intellects can believe they are part of some new movement without having to look up self-portrait on google.

  • 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.

    • whysosauras

      It’s more of a self-portrait, which is what selfies would be called today too, if the they didn’t abuse it into annihilation, forcing another name on its excessive behavior.

    • Allen F Butcher

      By your definition, attaching a camera to a stick is not producing a selfie either.

  • 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!

  • Joelle Copty

    Very handsome indeed ; ) , do I see clearly? he has his hand stick into his jacket… was it a technique the fact of taking a pictures with a hand sticked into the upper left side of a jacket?.. like Napoleón? ; ) ; ) hahaha..

    • IcouldBNE1

      I thought he might be smoking a cigarette. He seems to be holding something white with smoke raising from it.

  • Nora L

    It is actually quite likely that the honour for the first photographic self-portrait should go to French independent discoverer of photography Hippolyte Bayard, who had been experimenting with a paper-based photographic process of his own invention some time before the daguerrotype process was made public (and thus implicitly before it reached the US). In his archives, preserved at the SFP (Société française de photographie), there are self-portraits of his from 1839 which pre-date the photograph you discuss in this article. Here is a link, unfortunately in French:

    • Public Domain Review

      Thank you so much for this! There’s a rough date of October 1839 thrown about for this Cornelius photograph, and June 1839 for the Bayard. So it does seem that this could well be correct. We’ll investigate more and get the post updated, hopefully soon!

  • Mario Martinazzi

    Wrong, the first selfie ever was made by Bayard on the 21st of june 1839. Bayard was already the first photographer who made positive copies on paper, but it wasn’t so good in PR. In fact, nobody knows him even now

    • Bob Wager

      Do we know the 1st guy that “discovered” fire and its beneficial uses? NO. Do we know Bobby Flay? YES!

  • Karan Veer Singh

    i had my selfie in 2008….

    • Bob Wager

      I discovered my selfie WAY before that 🙂

  • Roger mccoy

    A selfie is a picture taken by a mobile device such as a mobile phone or camera that is held in the hand, or attacked to and extending device that is held in the hand of the person taking the selfie. The selfie exploded when the I-phone came out with the reverse camera allowing the selfie taker see themselves before taking the picture, allowing them to pose the way they want. Before, it was difficult and took many tries to get the right picture. So, there is no way that “Roberts Cornelius”s” picture could be considered a selfie. Either could a web cam picture be considered a selfie. It is not held in the hand, nor is it mobile. So, stick that in your pipe and smoke it “The Public Domain Review.” My name is Roger McCoy and I know for sure that, at least in Oak Park Ca. I have not found a selfie with a time stamp that is before my first selfie.” Until I do, I Claim being the 1st person in Oak Park, CA. to take a selfie.

  • Lisa Bednarz

    Best selfie ever – Thelma and Louise 1991.

  • robger65

    15 years before this picture was taken President Monroe was still wearing britches. Robert Cornelius was friends with his neighbor John McAllister, Jr., the first camera hog.

  • steven

    This is on the cover of my copy of Wuthering Heights. Philadelphia eh? He ain’t no Heathcliff!

  • Fernando

    I do believe that this first called Self Portrait is just a Portrait not a Selfie, Selfie is a modern concept, can’t be used to that photo.

  • Víctor

    Well, I read below about selfies and the last one picture isn’t it that, it´s just a self portrait. The first of all it´s the “selfie” have to be uploaded at social network, isn’t it?

  • whysosauras

    I’m crying and I have no idea why.

  • This is actually one of the reasons why I hate the new updated Oxford Dictionaries because of their recent slang terminology. We don’t need that in dictionaries. Although, self-expression has been around long before photography as artwork by Van Gogh most made famous paintings of. I love art and photography and I’m fantastic at both. I love doing watercolour artwork by hand and taking photos with my 1996 Olympus Accura SuperZoom 800 (analog camera), my Nikon D3300 DSLR Digital Camera, iPhone 6 (older photos taken with my iPhone 4s and iPhone 5c). I love taking photos of Landscapes, birds, dogs, horses and landmarks. I’m not a fan of taking photos of people unless I ask and they say “Yes, please.”. I hate it when people take a photo of me while trying to remain hidden, as if I won’t notice(!). I love the old rangefinder and film stock as it retains some gritty realistic quality that I admire.