Hi-tech mediaevals

According to Olivia B. Waxman, writing in TIME (June 21, 2017), “The term ‘selfie’ only dates to circa 2002, but millennials — while they can take credit for a broad range of social-media innovations — cannot take credit for the idea of taking a picture of oneself. Depending how you frame it,” continues Ms Waxman, “the concept of a self-portrait is centuries old, and many artists and photographers can take credit for shaping the genre (i.e. Vincent Van Gogh’s bandaged ear, Cindy Sherman’s movie scenes, Andy Warhol’s polaroids).

TIME publishes a number of significant ‘selfies’ to accompany the article, including the US astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s ‘first selfie in space’ (1966) and the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (‘The Ladies-in-Waiting’), in which Velázquez uses a mirror to depict himself painting a subject who occupies the position inhabited by the viewer.

Arguably the first self-portrait in the modern sense, however, is the work of Flemish/Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck – the 1433 depiction of a man in a turban who is generally thought to be the painter himself. Interestingly, it was a technological revolution that made this new artistic subject possible: the development of high-quality mirrors.

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