7 Famous Self-Portraits in Photography That Remain Unforgotten
Have a thing for self-portrait photography? Guess what – me too. I‘m excited to bring you a curated selection of some of the most famous self-portraits in photography. These images have not only defined the history of photography but also helped to shape the way we think about self-expression and identity.
While many may think that the selfie is a fairly new invention, people have been taking pictures of themselves for as long as photography exists. These famous photographs never fail to inspire – and provide a fascinating insight into the history of self-portraits.
A Look at Famous Self-Portraits in Photography
Get in for a ride, we‘re about to go back in time! These famous self-portraits have been taken anywhere between the early 1800s and the early 2000s.
1. Robert Cornelius
Sometimes all you have to do for fame is be the first. Even though Robert Cornelius is known for more than ‘just’ a selfie, he did indeed take the world‘s first self-portrait, not long after photography was invented. Robert Cornelius captured his famous self-portrait in 1839.
It is, in fact, not only the first selfie, but the first time a human has appeared in a photograph altogether. So, the selfie is just a modern disease, huh? I beg to differ – the first portrait ever is indeed a self-portrait!
The desire to capture one‘s self seems to have always been there. Just like painters have represented themselves, photographers started doing the same from the very birth hour of photography.
Even more impressive is the effort that went into photos back then due to the extremely long exposure times. Robert Cornelius must have held this pose for 10 to 15 minutes. It is barely blurry, so he did an impressive job of not moving at all.
2. Frances Benjamin Johnston
Female photographer Frances B. Johnston redefined ‚what a woman can do‘ – her famous self-portraits daringly mocked and inverted the strict gender roles of Victorian society. Being one of the earliest female photographers, she mostly took photos of celebrities of the time but her occasional self-portraits have also achieved long-lasting fame.
Her photographic self-portrait as „New Woman“ challenges the gender roles of her time. A woman holding a beer keg, daringly showing her ankles, and smoking a cigarette? Shocking! Johnston clearly enjoyed playing with the rules of a male-dominated world in her self-portraits and can be seen as part of the historical feminist movement in art.
3. Andy Warhol
I‘m sure you have come across this self-portrait photo by Andy Warhol – even though you might be more familiar with the many colored and screen-printed versions than the original photograph.
Warhol‘s earliest self-portraits were taken in a photo booth, experimenting with different roles and featuring props such as cameras, skulls and wigs. Photography was an important part of his artistic process.
These colorful self-portraits are similar to the portraits he created of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. At this point of his career, Warhol had come to fame himself and gets in line with fellow celebrities as he immortalizes himself in this series of famous self-portraits.
4. Anne Brigman
Taking nudes at a time when women were still the shocking exception in photography and expected to follow strict societal rules? Anne Brigman knew no limitations in her craft and did precisely that. She created awe-inspiring nude photographs of herself and her friends out in the Californian Sierra.
Nowadays, her self-portraits are probably not as famous as they deserve to be – yet her work is one of my personal favorites. Apart from the obvious artistry, her work was impressively far ahead of her time. The US-American artist was one of the leading figures of the Pictorialist movement, which sought to elevate photography to the level of fine art.
Her focus on the female form and the natural world, particularly the landscape of the American West, left a strong feminist statement to be remembered. Anne Brigman‘s work is a testimony to the strength and beauty of women.
Want to get started with self-portraits but don’t know how?
Check out this (super extensive) guide to self-portrait photography.
5. Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams was one of the most notable landscape photographers of the 20th century. Seem s like even he could not resist a selfie! This famous self-portrait, taken in Monument Valley (Utah), shows how creative you can get when capturing yourself. Do you need to show your face in a self-portrait? Not at all – your shadow will do.
With the tripod showing right next to him, this photo allows a sneak peek into the making of a self-portrait. Many artistic self-portraits are trying to hide the fact that it is a self-portrait by not showing any of the associated gear – here, it is clearly recognizable that it is the photographer himself taking the photo. Yet, with only a silhouette showing, it leaves a sense of mystery.
6. Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier came to late fame – her compelling black-and-white street photography has only been discovered after her death in 2009. Maier’s work was notable for its candid, spontaneous style and its ability to capture the everyday lives of people on the streets of Chicago and New York City.
Her now famous self-portraits show her in candid, spontaneous moments, often with a wry or mischievous expression. Among her thousands of photographs, she has also mastered the art of mirror self-portrait photography – often cleverly composed with a perfect element of surprise.
7. Cindy Sherman
Self-portrait photography is not necessarily about displaying your ‚true self‘ – it allows you to explore various roles and identities. American photographer Cindy Sherman is a master at doing so and is well-known for her conceptual portraiture.
Her famous self-portraits feature herself as the model in a variety of different roles and costumes, often using makeup and prosthetics to transform her appearance. Sherman uses self-portraits as a way of exploring identity and gender roles.
Her self-portrait series „Clowns“, taken between 2003 and 2004, challenges, once again, many associations and stereotypes. Her characters are often exaggerated and grotesque – perfect to evoke strong reactions among the viewers.
(And perfect to end this collection with something bright and colorful.)
Which iconic self-portraits in photography would you add to the list?
Let us know in the comments below, I’d be happy to add more to this post!
I hope these outstanding artworks inspired you to maybe even try self-portrait photography yourself. If you have any questions on how to get started, check out this free resource or leave a comment.