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Artists have been taking selfies since the dawn of photography. Cameras allowed people to capture their own image in a way that had never been possible in all of human history, and today most of us carry these magical devices in our pockets, taking self portraits everywhere we go.

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Sarah: The selfie is the recipient of so much hate that I almost feel sorry for it. Often seen is the surest indicator of vanity or narcissism, the selfie persists nonetheless. We want to do it. We have to do it. But why? Maybe art history can tell us.

People have been making photographic self-portraits since the dawn of photography. In fact, Robert Cornelius took this one and wrote on the back, the first light picture ever taken, 1839. He was wrong, as it happens. There are earlier photographs. But I see his selfie act as one motivated by need. He was probably working alone in a room, and the desire to canonize himself as the earliest photographer, during a time when there was a bit of a race to develop and profit from this exciting new technology.

But as soon as there were cameras, people used them to take pictures of themselves. Photographers took self-portraits to demonstrate their skills and sell their services. Both amateur and professional photographers took selfies to get to know their new devices, to understand the optics at play, and to have the startling experience of capturing one's own image in a way that had never before been possible in all of human history. They did this with the aid of assistants, or alone, as Cornelius was, quickly jumping in front of the camera, or with the aid of mirrors, of course, or by holding the camera at arm's length-- say cheese-- or with hand-held shutter releases that made things quite a bit easier.

Most of the great photographers took self-portraits. Alfred Stieglitz took this one in 1907, but didn't print it until 1930 when he gave it as a gift to his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. His friend Edward Steichen took these two self-portraits in his studio around 1917. Photographers showed themselves doing what they do, taking pictures, developing pictures. One of Ilse Bing's best known photographs is of herself, a brilliant mirror portrait capturing from multiple angles the moment the picture is taken. We don't know why Walker Evans took this self-portrait in his studio in 1927. But perhaps he was playing around, testing his shutter speed. And a couple of years later, he took the series in a photo booth, decades before Andy Warhol did it. Weegee the Famous took more than 1,500 self-portraits during the span of his career, some as part of his distortion series.

Photographers involved with and inspired by Dada and surrealism embraced the self-portrait as an avenue for experimentation. Erwin Blumenfeld took this mirror portrait early in his career with his family surrounding him, and went on to use his technical expertise in the darkroom to make a series of exploratory portraits throughout his life. Man Ray took this solarized self-portrait in 1932, and this one the same year, purportedly just after his lover, Lee Miller, left him. A decade later, he perfected and showed off the half-bearded look. And Berenice Abbott warped the photographic paper under an enlarger to create this self-portrait. Imogen Cunningham took experimental self-portraits throughout her life, from this one, taken in 1909 of her dressed up as if it were 1863, to this one with her camera in the 1920s, another with her grandchildren in a fun-house mirror, and one near the end of her life in a broken mirror.

Vivienne Mayer and other chroniclers of the street and American Life in the 1950s and '60s often couldn't resist snapping their own image as it reflected in shop windows, hubcaps, and security mirrors. Lee Friedlander captured a number of images of himself in windows and on the road as he documented the American landscape of the '60s.

These pictures not only show us a bit of what life was like at the time, but also firmly attach the image to an individual point of view, intricately tied to the person taking the picture. The 1970s saw a variety of approaches to self-portraiture. Ana Mendieta's self-portraits were performative, documentation of actions in which she immersed her body in nature. Adrian Piper became her masculine alter-ego, the mythic being, and tested how the world responded to her and she to the world. Francesca Woodman took this spellbinding self-portrait when she was just 13, and in her short life, produced image after image, including herself in the frame, but often obscuring her presence, giving us pictures that are intimate, but enigmatic. Hannah Wilkie put to use her own body to question notions of femininity and sexuality, posing like a fashion model while her face and body are scarred with chewing gum shaped into tiny vulvas. Robert Mapplethorpe explored gender and sexuality in two self-portrait photographs from 1980, appearing in one wearing makeup and in another as a hyper-masculine greaser. And Andy Warhol not only made use of the photo booth in the '60s, but turned the camera around on himself again and again, exploring the malleability of his own identity, his power as a brand, as well as his mortality.

Cindy Sherman began her incomparable parade of self-portraits with a series for which she enacted characters observed on a bus ride. A few years later came untitled films stills, her landmark series for which she took on a variety of guises, appearing as fictional characters caught in filmic moments. Sherman has gone on to create a tremendous body of work, all positioning herself before the camera to examine a wide range of concerns-- class and gender identity, the nature of representation, our fears and revulsion, and aging. Tseng Kwong Chi made over 100 images, posing in front of iconic spots in an invented persona he called his Chinese ambiguous ambassador. A number of artists have adopted related strategies, like Yasumasa Murimura, Nikki S. Lee, Yinka Shonibare, and Kallup Linzy.

In the '90s, we see Carrie Mae Weems blend fiction and autobiography, sitting at her own kitchen table in a series examining tropes and stereotypes of African-American life. And we also see Catherine Opie present her own image alongside portraits of other members of San Francisco's queer subculture. She shows herself not as an observer, but as part of the group she's portraying. Approaches like Nan Goldin's are deeply personal and diaristic. This photograph marks the end of her slide show, "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," that tells the story of her life at the time, including her passionate and ultimately abusive relationship with a man. Jen Davis began a long-term self-portraiture project in 2002, exploring her relationship with her body, men, and the camera. Ai Weiwei took several self-portraits while living in New York in the 1980s, documenting his life and friends far before he discovered social media and used it as a massively effective tool for communication, overcoming censorship, and as testimony to his own mistreatment.

And here's where the lines really start to blur between the photographic self-portraiture we've seen for over a century and the selfies of today. I've shown you only a brief sampling of the enormous history of photographic self-portraiture, and one heavily skewed toward artists working in America and Europe. The ease with which we can now take pictures of ourselves and share them has changed the game considerable, but in my mind, the basic motivations and potential for expression have stayed the same.

I am not saying all selfies are art, dear God, no. But I am saying that there's not really a difference in nature between a photographic self-portrait made by an artist and your run-of-the-mill selfie. There are a ton of really bad, deeply unfortunate selfies out there. But the quality of the average technology many of us carry around in our pockets is astounding, and has made a fairly democratic medium even more democratic.

Whether you call it particular selfie art or not is up to you. Selfies function in many different ways. They affirm. They reveal. They conceal. They question. They subvert the male gaze. They bear witness. They put the control in the hands of the subject. You decide how and when and why. We can't know, and will never know the exact motivations behind most selfies. But that's what images do. That's what they're for. They give us a glimpse. They show us a face, a certain person in a place and time. And it's up to us to read them and decode them.

What I'm trying to say is that a selfie has been art and can be art. There's great potential and resonance in this form of making. And I, for one, don't think we should be apologetic about it. Go forth and selfie. Just try to do it well.

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