Art changes all the time, and when it changes, so does its history. Strong forms give birth to their own ancestors. The word “selfie” only dates back to 2002, when it was coined on an Australian internet forum (and what an antique wind already blows from that word “forum”) by a clumsy drunk who took a photo of himself after tripping over a staircase at a friend’s twenty-first birthday party, and it hasn’t been in widespread use for more than a few years. By 2013 it was the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year. By now, in 2016, the selfie is as common as water, responsible for a clutch of hideous gadgets as well as several dozen fatalities: a plane crash, a boat capsizing, and at least one (alleged) dolphin murder.
The word “selfie” may be new, but the idea wasn’t born from Instagram, or from cameras on mobile phones, or even from the Kodak or the daguerreotype. The germ of it—the self-portrait, executed casually and made to be shared— has been around for centuries. Six centuries, to be exact. The first selfie in recorded history was made by Leon Battista Alberti in Florence, sometime around the year 1435. Alberti sculpted his self-portrait in wax and then had it cast in bronze. It’s a portrait medallion, and an unusually large one. It looks like a very large, awkwardly shaped, oval coin. Connoisseurs tell us that it is obviously the work of an amateur. There’s a blemish on the cheek from a casting flaw, and the ear, though ably sculpted, rises too far above the rest of the relief, creating the odd impression of a whorled mountain towering over the plain of Alberti’s face. But then amateurishness is part of the medallion’s message. Coins and medals were the province of emperors and kings. And now here is Alberti, the illegitimate son of a merchant father, born in exile and without a lasting position anywhere, saying to the world: This is my face. Take a good look—it’s worth your time.
This was the beginning of a Copernican revolution in the history of art whose fullest consequences are only being felt now, a turn away from religion and politics and history towards the universe of the self. Alberti was the perfect person to kick it off. He was an architect, art theorist, dramatist and scholar. He was Burckhardt’s model for the universal man of the Renaissance, a draft version of Leonardo da Vinci. He was also vainglorious, and a liar. Or at least I think he was. He claimed he could play the organ, even though he probably couldn’t. He kept a list of his own wittiest remarks. He said he could toss a coin high enough to hit the roof of the tallest cathedral in Florence. But the thing that settles the case for me is this: in his autobiography, Alberti says he could leap over a man even with his legs tied together with a string. Who says something like that? Why? (And why, unless you are Vince Carter, would you think it would be believed?)
Alberti’s message is one that was once barely heard but now blares at us from every corner of the visual world: Here I am. This is me. This is mine.
Instagram creates a disarming sense of intimacy with people you’ve never met. Recently I’ve been following Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Both are young men (younger than me, at least) who live in San Francisco. I live across the Bay, and I recognize many of the places the pair visit and work. Mike is the sweet, earnest one. Kevin is the bro. Mike posts lots of pictures of his dog. (He takes his dog to a park I sometimes jog at.) Kevin goes to a lot of vineyards. He goes to a lot of whiskey distilleries, too. His other interests appear to be fashion, models and breakfast.
When Instagram launched, Mike was 24 and Kevin was 26. Both went to Stanford as undergrads. Before Instagram, Kevin worked on an app called Burbn (he loves brown liquors), a check-in service in the mode of Foursquare. The app was a failure, but he learned from it that people were more interested in sharing photos than registering where they had been. This insight became the foundation of Instagram.
The two started their collaboration in a Cole Valley walk-up. Mike was in charge of the technical side of the sharing service, while Kevin handled the user interface. Both brought something of themselves into the project. Instagram’s square format was a product of a semester Kevin spent abroad in Florence while at Stanford, where he used a Holga camera while studying photography. Mike had actually worked on a photo-sharing service before. For a class project, he designed an app to treat seasonal affective disorder. It was called “Send Me Some Sunshine.” People on one side of the world could send photos of sunshine to their peers in more wintry climates to cheer them up.
What a sweet, silly and utterly useless idea.
One of Kevin’s favorite accounts is called Symmetry Breakfast. It was started in 2013 by a gay couple living in London, Mark van Beek and Michael Zee. Michael cooks and Mark eats. Symmetry Breakfast was launched when Michael posted a picture of their perfectly arranged meal. This year, Michael quit his job at the Victoria and Albert Museum after signing a lucrative book deal. Recently, Systrom met with the pair in San Francisco. They had breakfast, naturally, and Systrom, just as naturally, photographed the meal—though the third plate rather spoils the effect.