9 Vintage Selfies That Prove Gen Y Didn’t Invent the Self-Portrait

The ubiquity of cell phones may have made the self-portrait a point of mockery, but it’s not exactly a new medium. Photographers and regular folks have been setting up cameras with timers or posing in front of mirrors since the birth of the camera. After all, how else were you going to document ye olde brunch your solo travels to new and exciting, uncharted lands.

The next time you hear someone claiming that Generation Instagram invented the self-portrait, show them these vintage selfies – no filter! – to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

vintage selfies

Back in the day, selfies were often a little more composed then they are today. For example, here’s a self-portrait with a book from 1910, courtesy of the archive Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane.

vintage selfies

Explorer Frank Wild was the official photographer for the first Australasian Antarctic expedition, documenting the three-year trip. Here he is with Charles Hoadley, a geographer, in this self-portrait of them staying warm in a sleeping bag. Wild is on the left. This image is courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.


vintage selfie

Photographer Herbert. F. Cooper snapped this profile shot around 1930. Cooper usually photographed the impacts of the partition of Ireland – particularly, poverty and unemployment – on Strabane, Ireland. The image is courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

vintage selfiesBaron Adolph de Meyer was a portrait photographer whose clientele included stars like Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, King George V of the United Kingdom, and Queen Mary.

He is also considered a pioneer in the field of fashion photography; In 1913, he was appointed the first official fashion photographer for Vogue. During that time, he was the highest-paid photographer in the world.

His photos also appeared in Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, though most of his prints were destroyed during WWII.

This photo comes courtesy of the Museum of Photographic Arts.

vintage selfies
Here’s a historically important vintage selfie: Using a mirror and Kodak Brownie box camera in 1914, Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna took this photo using a mirror. Anastasia was the daughter of the last sovereign king of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II, and was killed just two years after this portrait was taken. This image is via the Wikimedia Commons.


If you went to space, you’d take a selfie, too. NASA, who provides the image, writes:

“On June 3, 1965 Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft and let go, effectively setting himself adrift in the zero gravity of space. For 23 minutes White floated and maneuvered himself around the Gemini spacecraft while logging 6500 miles during his orbital stroll. White was attached to the spacecraft by a 25 foot umbilical line and a 23-ft. tether line, both wrapped in gold tape to form one cord. In his right hand White carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) which is used to move about the weightless environment of space. The visor of his helmet is gold plated to protect him from the unfiltered rays of the sun.”

vintage selfies

“Image shows Charles Elliott Gill, standing in broad-brimmed hat, wearing a pistol and cartridge belt on his vest. He holds a rifle in one hand and a dead turkey in the other,” writes the Missouri Archives of this photo.

Gill was an amateur photographer, the Archives explains, who “emerged in the 1880s with the advent of more simplified cameras and manufactured glass plate negatives.

No longer forced to drag their darkrooms and dangerous chemicals around with them, photographers could easily capture places and events in their own communities that had never been photographed before.

Gill spent years documenting life in the upper Ozarks with his 1906 Seroco extended view camera.”

Gill used the same camera for 30 years.

vintage selfies

This photo was taken at the På Hagens hotel Moldøen by Kristian Berge in 1918. Here’s another selfie he took. The image comes courtesy of the Country Archives of Fjordane.

vintage selfies

“Self-portait Paul Stang,” writes the Country Archives of  Stongfjorden. “With his camera Paul Stang documented the changes taking place in Stongfjorden in the early 1900s. Paul started photographing in 1906 at the age of 18. He continued photographing until 1923 when he suddenly died at age of 35. Taking photos was a hobby of Paul’s and he was self-educated in the trade. As most others in Stongfjorden he earned a living working at the aluminium factory.”

vintage photography

Here’s a bonus – an accidental selfie/kind of a photobomb!  Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, (1874-1940) accidentally captured his own shadow in this image of  John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy, who “makes $.75 some days. Begins at 6 a.m., Sundays. (Lives at 215 W. Michigan St.),” writes the Library of Congress. The image was taken in August of 1908.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.