Andell Family Sundays Anytime: Selfie Is Slang for Self-Portrait

June 20, 2021
Rosanne Kleinerman, Teaching Artist

You have probably made at least one selfie before. Maybe you held your camera up to the mirror, or you looked into one of your devices and used a timer to snap a photo. But did you know that before there were smart phones or cameras, artists have been creating images of themselves for centuries?

The word selfie comes from the art term self-portrait. Before photography was invented, painters and sculptors sometimes made art about themselves. Some painters made self-portraits throughout their lifetimes. Now we can see what they looked like and what they wore when they were young, older, and sometimes very old. Maybe you painted a self-portrait in art class. It’s an art tradition!

LACMA has a wonderful collection of self-portraits that artists drew, painted, printed, collaged, sculpted, and photographed throughout time. Some were made as long as 500 years ago. 

Look at art:

Today we are going to focus on photography. Wait, was that an art joke? (It was). Was it funny? (Maybe a little). Here are some humorous photographic self-portraits:

Mehemed Fehmy Agha dressed his foot up and made an unexpected self-portrait. T. Lux Feininger dressed up as the great comic actor Charlie Chaplin. If you don’t know who Charlie Chaplin is, stop reading this and watch one of his movies immediately, because he is hilarious. Okay, FINISH reading this, MAKE some photographs, and THEN find a Charlie Chaplin movie to watch. (Hint: check the website of your local library). You won’t be sorry.

Back to self-portraits: Tato dressed in costume, and Judith Golden used pages from a magazine to work into her self-portrait. All of the artists here are hiding a little bit, yet also revealing a side of themselves that might be surprising. As with all art, you, the viewer, get to interpret the work in a way that makes sense to you. As the artist, you get to make up the rules. We’ll get back to that when it’s time to make your self-portrait. 

Tell it like it is:

Maybe you are more serious and want to document yourself at this exact moment in time. Is there something—an object or a place—that really helps describe you today? 

Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer, made her self-portrait standing next to her camera on a tripod. Marta Hoepffner, a multi-talented artist, shows herself with her camera and with a painted self-portrait. Edward Steichen was primarily known as a photographer, but he was also a painter. In his self-portrait, he uses photography not only to show himself painting, but he makes the photo itself look like a painting. George Platt Lynes photographed dancers and in this self-portrait perhaps he is in a dance costume. 

Your turn:

Did you get some good ideas for a self-portrait from these artists? What is your self-portrait going to look like? Will you dress up in a costume, or wear your favorite outfit? Will you include the tools of your trade? Things like a paint brush, a tennis racket, a rolling pin, your pet, or a book? Will you be in a favorite chair, outside, or against a wall? Maybe you’ll show up as a character from your favorite book. Give it a little thought.

Now how will you take your photo? With a camera on a tripod? If you don’t know what a camera or a tripod is, scroll back up and look at the photos by Margaret Bourke-White and Marta Hoepffner again. Most likely, you will use your smartphone or another device. You already know how to use all the camera apps. You probably taught your parents how to use the filters. It’s easier to set the timer to take the photo rather than holding your phone or having to click on a button. 

Here we go: 

Create a setting. Maybe take a practice photo to see if the light is okay. Then visualize where you are going to be in that setting.

Dress the part. Figure out what you are going to wear and if you are going to include any props.

Set the timer and take your place. Click, click, click. Make a few photos. Look at them all and pick the things you like best. For example, maybe you like how you look in one photo but you can’t tell that thing you are sitting on is a giant bird. Move things around until everything fits in the picture. Snap a few more photos and choose the perfect one. 

Remember how artists get to make up the rules? Your self-portrait, okay, selfie, doesn’t have to look like anything you’ve ever seen before. Try something new or try to make something you’ve always wanted to see. If you want, you can play with the filters on your device to change the color and light, or even draw or paint on top of the photo. 

Recently I painted a self-portrait. Since I am a painter, my selfie MUST include a painting!

Self-portrait and painting on green background
Rosanne Kleinerman's self-portrait, courtesy of Rosanne Kleinerman

I would love to see your creative selfie. Tag your work @lacma on social media. Have fun making art!

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