Who Is Responsible For The First Selfie? A Scientific Investigation

Alright dear readers, get your magnifying glasses and trench coats ready, we have a mystery on our hands here today. Earlier this week, America's sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon posted a mid-'90s throwback pic of her and longtime pal, Paul Rudd. 

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"Wait a second... did #PaulRudd and I take the 'Selfie' in 1996?," the actress captioned the wholesome snap. But just like stumbling across that fateful recipe for Velveeta cheese fudge, something about this image lit my journalistic passions aflame. Is Reese Witherspoon, the iconic actress who brought my personal role model, Elle Woods, to life, actually the inventor of the selfie? If not, who is? Do they know the implications of their discovery? Would they be proud of their legacy? 

The answer, it turns out, is actually incredibly nuanced, complex, and highly contested. For years, everyone and their mother (literally in my case) has vied for credit as the inventor of the selfie. In 2017, heiress, DJ, and documentary film star, Paris Hilton says she and friend Britney Spears started the trend in 2006. 

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The same year, Andy Warhol's "first selfie" dated from 1963-64 sold for $7.7 million at auction. Hell, two years earlier in 2015 even my own mother tried to claim the selfie as her own, citing this awkward snap taken circa 1983. 

Ann Tennes
Angles, darling, angles. 
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Yet Witherspoon, Hilton, Warhol, and my mom are all far from alone. Ebbing and flowing with the argument of ownership in the press, many....

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Many ...

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Many people have tried to claim the selfie as their own, with some photos even dating back to 1920. So who, in all this madness is actually responsible for the modern-day self portrait? Well, It turns out the old adage of "but first, let me take a selfie," is actually more like "But ere we go, permit thee to capture a self portrait" -- depending on how you define certain terms. 

According to The New York Times,  one of the oldest "selfies" may span as far back as 1839, when Robert Cornelius, a Philadelphia-based chemist with a passion for photography, ran into the frame of a photo. "The first light Picture ever taken. 1839," he wrote on the back of the photograph. 10/10 titling, spot on... or was it...

Robert Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons
That's a whole lot of smolder for 1839.
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While upon first glance, Cornelius' 19th century blue-steel pic may seem like the cut-and-dry answer for the first selfie, to some, the methods and mediums pose questions. Must selfies be taken by a handheld camera? Does the fact that he ran into frame disqualify this image? What about other mediums? Paint, perhaps? By that logic, could one argue that painters with likely self-portraits like say, Jan Van Eyck in the 1400s are the art form's true forefathers? What about other drawings? Scribbles on ancient notepads? To encompass it all, what does it mean to document one's existence or one's form? In essence, to answer the question of the first selfie, would be to answer what it means to exist. 

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 Someday, with more time, energy, and access to historians and philosophers, we'll delve into that. But first, let us all take a selfie. 

For more mediocre selfies and existential dread, follow Carly on Instagram at @HuntressThompson and on Twitter @TennesAnyone.

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