Hippolyte Bayard made the first photographic self portrait in 1840, when he imagined himself as a drowned man, in protest of a decision by the French Academy of Sciences to delay the announcement of his new photographic process. Almost 175 years later, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized a new word: selfie, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The difference between the casual snapshots that are today uploaded by the millions, and the carefully produced image that Bayard constructed, is the subject of a new show, “This Is Not a Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection,” on view at the San Jose Museum of Art until January 14, 2018. The show features 66 images by photographers including Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Cindy Sherman, Alfred Stieglitz, Lorna Simpson, Andy Warhol and others.
As photo historian and curator Deborah Irmas writes in a essay in the show’s catalogue, if “the selfie can be considered a vernacular subset of the self-portrait genre, self-portraiture, especially in the hands of artists, is often a vastly different enterprise,” one that offers insight into the artist’s formal and ideological concerns and into the larger culture as well. “By presenting themselves, these artists allow us to look beyond them, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means for people to live in a complex world of images,” writes Irmas. “Whereas a selfie seldom reaches beyond its documentary function of presenting the physical circumstances of its photographer-subject, these self-portraits are not just about their respective creators; they’re about all of us.”