When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see?  Perhaps not a great deal; just enough to avoid cutting yourself shaving or smudging your make-up. Next time, take a moment to look a little longer at that face looking back at you, those eyes. Are you seeing yourself as others see you? Or can you see someone else, the person inside you? Sometimes when I find myself staring into the mirror it is almost as if I can see two of me; the person that other people see and the person I think I am.  

Once upon a time we could not know ourselves in this way. We looked through our eyes and we could see various parts of our body but our faces were hidden from us. We might catch a blurred reflection in water or on a burnished surface but it only gave a hint of ourselves. And there were very few means to capture that likeness. It would be a time consuming business to sit for a portrait, a process available only to a wealthy few wishing to make a statement.  

Now, what was once mysterious has become common place. Each morning we stop and look in the mirror to shave, put on makeup, check our hair is okay.  And we all have the means to make our own portraits anytime we like.

How did we travel from an unrecognised self to putting ourselves centre stage? This is a short history of that journey from an imperfect reflection to a multitude of likenesses, from the mystical to the mundane.


… the mirror is a visual bridge between past, present and future.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p38

The earliest mirrors were still water. The first man-made mirrors, 8000 years ago, were polished obsidian, a volcanic stone. Later mirrors were made of polished copper or bronze.  They would have taken time and effort to create and so would presumably have been the preserve of a handful of the wealthy; these objects’ status in society can be seen by their appearance on funerary imagery. There were simpler mirrors which were nothing more than a bowl of water but otherwise the opportunity to observe oneself was limited. In any case, whilst the evidence suggests some early mirrors were of a reasonable quality they still gave limited vision of the observer. For many early people their own reflection would have been an imperfect image.

Despite or because of their imperfections, early mirrors had a role beyond assisting with shaving or putting on make-up. They were seen as reflecting more than just the person’s outer appearance; it was believed that they also could reveal their inner self or soul. That was why it was thought bad luck to break them; you could be damaging your own soul. Some traditions are concerned that a person’s soul upon death or sleeping may become trapped in a mirror – that’s why in some traditions they may be covered during a period of mourning or at night to prevent this.

If a soul could be held within a mirror then the mirror also offered a means of connecting with the dead and, by extension, looking into the past  and the future.  Processes known as  catoptromancy or enoptromancy were used to divine the future. The mirror provided a link between the past, present and future.

Mirrors and our own reflections are more magical than we think.


“For most of the modern era, the possibility of seeing an image of oneself was limited to the wealthy and the powerful.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p328

Mirrors give a transient view of ourselves. A portrait captures our likeness forever and this was recognised from antiquity onward.  In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome wall paintings and statues depicted pharaohs and emperors, often alongside gods, emphasising their high status. The same desire for the reflected divine glory continued into the Christian era. These could be in the form of donor portraits where the artist would insert their client into a biblical scene such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion.

With the decline of overtly religious iconography portraiture was used to emphasise the absolute power of the monarch. Many artists became more than tradesmen, turning into trusted servants of the king. The classic example of the power portrait would have been that of King Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein.

With the expansion of the middle classes portraiture moved downwards but it was still the preserve of the very wealthy keen to mark their place in society. For the remainder there were very limited means for a likeness of oneself  to capture. They continued to rely upon their reflected image in a mirror.

Self Portraits

“The moment when a man comes to paint himself – he may do it only two or three times in a lifetime, perhaps never – has in the nature of things a special significance.”

Lawrence Gowing, quoted

From early on, artists began to appear in their own work. These would be typically religious scenes and the artist would include themselves in a group of people, for example Piero della Francesca added himself as a sleeping Roman soldier in his fresco, Resurrection (1463). This may have been done for practical purposes; the artist was available to act as a subject for his work.  

Gradually the artist began to creep into portraits of others. This is most notable in Las Meninas, (1656) painted by Diego Velázquez where he is seen standing next to his easel painting the picture we are looking at. The ostensible subject of the picture, King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Mariana are seen reflected in a mirror at the very back of the picture, apparently posing for the painting Velazquez is working on. They appear to be standing where we as the viewer stand looking at the picture.  Alongside are members of the court and most of these are looking towards the King and Queen, or us.    

The most prolific self-portraitist was probably Rembrandt. There a are probably forty self-portraits attributed to his own hand as well as many sketches and drawings.  Sometimes this was because he was the nearest available model (and cheapest). On other occasions he may have been recording his own expressions for use in later projects. In any case we have a record of his changing appearance throughout his career.  Like many other painters he would have worked in front of a mirror and there are suggestions that he occasionally had to rework his portraits to show him the right way and not as if he were a reflection.

A large number of women artists produced self-portraits. A notable example was Madame Lebrun working in the 18th Century as a portraitist; a self-portrait was one method of showing off her skills to potential clients. It could also be argued it provided with an opportunity to present her own self-image in an era when the image of women was filtered through a masculine perspective. One of her self-portraits includes her daughter; she wanted to show herself in a positive light as an artist (a worker) and a mother.

The photographic portrait

“… our loathsome society rushed , like Narcissus , to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate . A form of lunacy , an extraordinary fanaticism , took hold of these new sun worshippers.”

Charles Baudelaire 1859

The invention of photography in the early nineteenth century industrialised the portrait process and began the democratisation of the self-portrait. A French photographer, Andre Disderi, patented the carte de visite, a photograph printed on thin paper and mounted on card. He also came up with the idea of taking eight photographs with a single negative driving down costs further. Sitters would be brought into a naturally lit studio, posed with a few props, and told to hold still for a while as their photograph was taken. Once done, the next in line would be ushered in to undergo the same process.

All this industry met a need – there was a craze to be photographed, to keep a likeness of yourself and your family, or to share them with others.  It has been suggested that this could come from the pleasure we experience when seeing people we recognise. Arguably our very survival is based upon that recognition; as babies we learn to recognise our parents and gain pleasure when we see their faces. It might be the same process runs through the desire to be photographed?

The photographic self-portrait

“I am an African chief, in a western chair with a leopard skin cover, and a bouquet of sunflowers. I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white man. I am saying: we had our own systems, our own rulers, before you came. It’s about the history of the white man and the black man in Africa.”

As with painting, the self-portrait became popular with photography. Early examples included the American photographer, Robert Cornelius, taken in 1839 and the French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard  “Self-portrait of a drowned man” (1839-40). He was the developer of an alternative photographic process that was eclipsed by the daguerreotype. In his self-portrait, he presents himself as a drowned man.

A self-portrait can be empowering; it allows the subject to take control of how they would like to present themselves. This can be particularly relevant for certain groups who have often been the subject but rarely in control of their appearance. Two recent examples of this are Cindy Shermanand Samuel Fosso.

Both photographers have used the genre to subvert how they are often viewed in mainstream society: for example, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” – a series of self-portraits showing herself as a typical character from  Hollywood Movies, subverting the genre to take control of her own image and that of other women as they have depicted in male dominated movie industry; or Samuel Fosso’s Self-portraits  of himself as a westerner would see an African man.

The selfie

“Because it draws on the long history of the self-portrait, it’s likely that the selfie in one form or another will continue to play a role in shaping how to see people for a long time to come.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p69

That leads us on to the much maligned “selfie”. On the one hand we are all artists now in control of how we portray ourselves. On the other hand our experiences of the world around us can only be meaningful if we have inserted ourselves into it (sometimes inappropriately and occasionally at great risk) and snapped ourselves.

The selfie has become ubiquitous. back in 2016 Google reported that 24 billion selfies were posted to Google Photos. That was one platform four years ago. The number has surely grown by now, along with the expansion of photo sharing apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and more).  

Research suggests that the bulk of selfies are taken by women (, they tend to have a very limited lifespan and they are often used as a visual form of communication; the mobile phone created for speech and text is now more frequently used to share images.

This brief history has shown that over the millenia we have moved from the mysterious and barely seen to the mundane and ubiquitous but along the way we have begun to take control of how we portray ourselves. Whilst many people bemoan the rise of the selfie, it should be celebrated as a means of self-portrayal.

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

One thought on “Self

Leave a Reply