As long as cavemen have been smearing stick figures on walls in Southern France, people have been making self-portraits. Who took the first 21st-century-style selfie, though? You know, that photographic self-portrait taken while holding a camera at arm’s length?
Given how most people take selfies, you’d probably think it was some 1990s teenage girl armed with an early Kodak digicam, or maybe a group of late-1960s flower children armed with a Polaroid camera. But no, 21st-century-style selfies are actually an early 20th-century affair. In fact, this photograph taken in December in 1920 might be the first modern selfie.
Snapped in New York on the roof of the Marceau Studio on Fifth Avenue, across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this picture features five mustached photographers holding an antediluvian analog camera at arm’s length. Because this camera would have been too heavy to hold with one hand, Joseph Byron is propping it up on the left, with his colleague Ben Falk holding it on the right. In the middle, you have Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, and Pop Core.
What’s interesting here is that these five gentlemen were the photographers of the Byron Company, a photography studio founded in Manhattan in 1892, which was described by the New York Times as “one of New York’s pre-eminent commercial photography studios.” Joseph Byron is the founder, and the studio actually still operates in the hands of his descendants, seventh-generation photographer Thomas Byron and his son, Mark Byron. The possible creators of the first selfie are still in business!
These incredible photographs are just two of 23,000 Byron Company prints that have been digitized as part of the Museum of the New York City’s digital collection. You can check out more of their incredible photographic library online here.
Is this the first real selfie? Hard to say. Our colleagues over at Co.Create claim to have an even older selfie but we’d argue a person sitting in front of a camera isn’t any more a selfie than painting yourself in a mirror is. You’ve got to be holding the camera yourself for it to be a 21st Century selfie.