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A brief history of the selfie.
From duckface to the rise of hands-free photos1 with Pixel Fold, here’s how the selfie has conquered the globe.

Today, people take selfies without a moment’s hesitation: Open your camera, pose, and snap. 

But that wasn’t always the case. While people have been taking photos of themselves since the early days of photography, selfies take it to the next level. They aren’t self-portraits in a museum, created over a span of time. They’re photos taken in the moment and shared with others. They’re an expression of what we look like – and how we wish to be seen.

The selfie phenomenon began in the early 2000s, with the introduction of the smartphone. It accelerated with the advent of social media apps, which let people easily share photos with their friends and family. The more people shared, and the more phones evolved, the faster trends developed – from duckface in the 2000s to more advanced filters and lenses in the mid 2010s. 

Today, technology keeps shaping new trends and possibilities, allowing anyone to take amazing photos of themselves to share with the world. The selfie has, according to New York–based photography historian and author Alise Tifentale, “opened up roads to self-expression and creativity to all non-artists.”

The latest advances: revolutionary phone designs that let you take hands-free selfies, and AI tools that allow you to enhance your pictures. Both are available with Pixel Fold

From self-portraits to Polaroids

It’s easier than ever to take a selfie. But how did we get here?

In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a pioneer of American photography, took a daguerreotype picture of himself, creating one of the earliest photo self-portraits. He chose himself as a subject because nobody else would sit around while he played with the shutter and dials.

“As literal experimenters, dealing with tricky combinations of chemicals, lighting, and timing, [early photographers] were never certain of what the results might be, and how many experiments would be necessary,” says Dr. Marcy Dinius, author of The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype.

Early photography was complex, expensive, and out of reach for most folks. That changed in the early 1900s thanks to a new invention: the Kodak Brownie camera. The Brownie was affordable and the film was cheap. That meant more people could now take photos.

The next evolution in self-portrait photography didn’t come until the 1970s with the release of the Polaroid SX-70. Amateur photographers could capture color photos without a complicated development process. And they could flip the camera around to quickly capture a picture of themselves with their friends, and see the results in seconds. 

The 1990s saw wider adoption of the internet and digital cameras. Self-portraits became even easier and grew in popularity, first in Japan and East Asia, and then around the world. That was followed by the Game Boy Camera, an attachment for the gaming device, which helped introduce another new generation to the concept of digital photography.

The difference between these self-portraits and today’s selfies? Distribution. While people could upload photos to forums, the images were low quality and only reached a small audience. That would soon change.

Photography historian Alise Tifentale Today, photography is accessible as never before. New technology, new modes of self-expression

The word selfie appears to have been born by accident, in an offhand comment made on an internet forum in Australia in 2002. A user posted a photo of himself and called it a “selfie,” the earliest known use of the term. Although it’s unclear where the word came from, Chris Chesher, a professor of media studies at the University of Sydney, has an idea: Aussies often shorten words by adding “ie” to the end (think “brekkie” for breakfast). Hence, selfie.

It wasn’t until the late aughts with social media apps, higher resolution photos, and front-facing cameras on early smartphones that selfies became widespread. Even more people had a camera in their pocket wherever they went. Celebrities further fueled the trend, taking selfies with each other and their fans, and sharing them on social media. Early filter apps allowed people to easily experiment with color, contrast, and light.

Non-humans also got in on the selfie action. In 2011, a crested macaque in Indonesia took a now-famous photo of itself using a British wildlife photographer’s camera. That launched a yearslong battle over who owned the copyright to the selfie. (Turns out, it was the human.) 

As more photo-centric social media apps took off around 2013 and phone cameras improved, the selfie soared in popularity, says Tifentale. The popularity of selfie sticks the following year both reflected and propelled the phenomenon.

As technology and social media continue to evolve, so has the meaning of these photographs – and who takes them. Selfies aren’t just the modern version of the age-old self-portrait, or just another photo that you take with your phone camera. They’re a snapshot of your life and how you want to present it. Almost anyone can create them. And they’re designed to be shared with your friends, family, and the whole world. 

“Today,” says Tifentale, “photography is accessible as never before.”

Take hands-free selfies

Snap hands-free photos with tabletop mode on Pixel Fold.

Take hands-free selfies

Snap hands-free photos with tabletop mode on Pixel Fold.

New styles, better selfies

As camera technology has developed, so has the art of the selfie. 

One of the most popular trends today is the 0.5 selfie, which is taken with an ultrawide lens that distorts your surroundings. There’s a long history of experimenting with angles and perspective in photography, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. That’s when avant-garde artists associated with the Bauhaus New Vision movement pioneered new ways of photographing their surroundings. 

Like their counterparts in the early 20th century, Gen Z photographers who take these 0.5 selfies aren’t looking for the perfect picture. They’re purposely and creatively trying to distort their appearance, changing conventional ideas of what we consider a great photograph. 

Technology has made it easier to keep pushing the bounds of creativity, especially with the Pixel Fold camera. Since it comes with an ultrawide rear lens, you can get more background into your selfie. You can also quickly and easily take hands-free photos with tabletop mode. All you need to do is set the phone on a surface and set a timer or say, “Hey Google, take a selfie.”

Another technological leap is the ability to enhance your selfies using Google’s next generation of photography tools. Among those available on Pixel Fold: Real Tone, which allows the nuances of different skin tones to be represented accurately and beautifully, and Photo Unblur, which helps you give your photos a professional polish.2

Whether you’re using Pixel Fold to improve the way you take traditional selfies or experimenting with ultrawide photo trends, you’re following in the path of decades of photographers before you. 

“It’s right in line with the rest of the history of photography,” says Dinius, the author of The Camera and the Press. “People consistently manipulate the technology – both its affordances and its shortcomings – to create unexpected images that challenge aesthetic norms.” 

There’s a long history of photographers taking pics of themselvesToday, technology is still creating new possibilities, like hands-free photos on Pixel FoldGet more background in your Rear Camera Selfie with Pixel Fold’s ultrawide rear lens
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  1. Requires internet connection. Google Assistant and some related features are not available in all languages. See for updates to language availability.

  2. Requires Google Photos app. May not work on all image elements.