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Associated Press
Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, recently posted a selfie photo.

Self portraits for a new world

– In these hyper-connected, over-shared times dwell two kinds of people: those preoccupied with taking and uploading photos of themselves and those who have never heard of the selfie.

The raunchy, goofy, poignant, sexy or drunken self-portrait has been a common sight since phone camera met social media. Now, nearly a decade since the arm-extended or in-the-mirror photos became a mainstay of MySpace – duck face or otherwise – selfies are a pastime across generations and cultures.

Justin Bieber puts up plenty with his shirt off and Rihanna poses for sultry snaps, but a beaming Hillary Clinton recently took a turn with daughter Chelsea, who tweeted their happy first attempt with the hashtag #ProudDaughter.

Two other famous daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, selfied at dad’s second inauguration, pulling faces in front of a smartphone. And Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide earned a spot in the Selfie Hall of Fame with a striking, other-worldly shot, arms extended as reflected in his helmet outside the International Space Station last year.

“It just comes so naturally after a point,” said Elizabeth Zamora, a 24-year-old marketing account coordinator in Dallas who has taken hundreds of selfies since she got her first iPhone two years ago, with the front-facing camera that has become the selfie gold standard.

“You just take it and you don’t even realize it and then you’re sharing it with all your friends,” she said. “I try not to go crazy.”

If we’re not taking them, we’re certainly looking, regardless of whether we know what they’re called. We’re lurking on the selfies of our teens, enjoying the hijinx of co-workers and friends and mooning over celebrities, who have fast learned the marketing value – and scandalous dangers – of capturing their more intimate, unpolished selves.

The practice of freezing and sharing our thinnest slices of life has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term “selfie” as a possible addition. Time magazine included the selfie in its Top 10 buzzwords of 2012 (at No. 9) and New York magazine’s The Cut blog declared in April: “Ugly Is the New Pretty: How Unattractive Selfies Took Over the Internet.”

Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist Carole Lieberman sees narcissism with a capital N. “The rise of the selfie is a perfect metaphor for our increasingly narcissistic culture. We’re desperately crying out: Look at me!”

But Pamela Rutledge doesn’t see it that way. The director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, which explores how humans interact with technology, sees the selfie as democratizing the once-snooty practice of self-portraiture, a tradition that long predates Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

She sees some key differences between selfies and self-portraits of yore. Unlike painted portraiture, selfies are easily deletable. And “bad or funny is good in a way that wasn’t the case when people had to pay for film to be developed,” or for a professional painter, she said.

“Albrecht Durer’s self-portraiture is these incredible self-reflections and explorations of technique, and then when Rihanna snaps her picture it’s just self-aggrandizement, or it’s promotion, so you have a fairly interesting double standard based upon who’s taking the self-portrait,” said Rutledge, in Boston.

Self-portraits tagged as “selfie” first surfaced on Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and on MySpace in 2004, Rutledge said. The earliest reference in UrbanDictionary was to “selfy” in 2005.

In historical terms, elites in Ancient Egypt were fond of self-portraits, Rutledge said. And then there was the mirror, invented in the 15th century and allowing artists like the prolific Durer in Germany to have at it in more meaningful detail.

While the self-involved Narcissus stared at his reflection in a pond in Greek mythology, it was the mirror that “really was the first piece of technology where an artist could see his own image long enough to paint it, other than just painting self-impressions,” Rutledge said.

Fast forward to the 1860s and the advent of cameras, launching a new round of selfies, though they took considerable skill and expense.

Leap with us again to 2010 and the launch of Instagram, and on to 2012, when 86 percent of the U.S. population had a cellphone, bringing on the cheaper selfie as social media and mobile Internet access spread.

“What’s most interesting to me is how we’re trying to grapple with what it means,” Rutledge said. “We know what it means when we see somebody’s picture of their kid holding a soccer ball. We’re OK with that. And we know what it means to have a portrait in a high school yearbook or of a real estate agent on a business card. We know how to think about all of those things, but we don’t know how to think about this mass production of self-reflection.”

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