16 Jan 2020 | 3 MIN READ

What Selfies Looked Like Before Smartphones

Tatev Kyurkchyan
Smartphone photography

modern selfie group compared to vintage woman self portrait

We take selfies nearly every day, sometimes without even thinking about it. A quick swipe and click on our smartphones gives us dozens of selfies in a few seconds.  The term “selfie” has only become popular in the past decade. But what did selfies look like before they became selfies? 


Selfies are typically referred to as digital self-portraits, now commonly taken with the front cameras of smartphones. The oldest selfies were indeed digital self-portraits, but they looked a lot different than what we know today. 

Modern photography began with the invention of the daguerreotype. Quite a mouthful, right? It was known as the first successful imaging process that resulted in getting an image on a heavy metal surface. Unlike how we get hundreds of photos in a minute now, the daguerreotype took about 15 minutes to create one digital image. This is why smiling is less common in earlier photographs since it was difficult to hold a smile constantly for several minutes.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

This is Robert Cornelius, who is considered to be the first person who took a digital self-portrait just two months after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. Since there weren’t front and back facing cameras like we have today, the ‘selfies’ had to be done in front of mirrors or windows to get the reflection.

The daguerreotype was expensive and was mostly used by the upper class for their portraits for a long time. It was decades later that affordable versions appeared in the market such as the Kodak Brownie box camera seen in the image above. Each one of these cameras cost $1 (about $30 in today’s money). 

Over time, the variety of cameras grew and spread all across the world. The cameras slowly became more portable which made it easier to carry around. Taking the actual photos became quicker since film was used instead of metal. 

Photo Credit: The Guardian

Here’s another vintage selfie from Terry Fincher in 1966, who took a photo with a fisheye lens strapped to his foot while parachuting. The fisheye lens makes the sky in the background resemble a planet, creating an interesting illusion. 

Ilse Bing, “Self-Portrait in Mirrors”, 1931

The art of taking selfies has transformed a lot through the centuries. When thinking of vintage selfies or self-portraits we might think of low-quality images compared to the technology we have today. Although camera quality has increased a lot since then, it’s fair to say that these vintage selfies are just as good as the ones we take today.