Paris Hilton and the History of the Selfie

Did Paris Hilton invent the selfie? Probably not, says the New York Times, the Internet, and everyone else.

According to a post by Hilton on twitter, November 19th, 2006 was perhaps one of the most iconic and influential dates of the 21st century. Hilton, a socialite, and pop star Britney Spears allegedly did what no other human on earth had done before: they turned their camera around and took a picture of themselves, effectively initiating a social movement that would come to be known as the “selfie.”

Hilton posted on the social media app commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the event on Sunday, with the historic photo attached, but there was no shortage of commenters who disagreed with and disproved her bold assertion of innovation.

The New York Times, ever the trailblazer in investigative journalism, set out to discover whether Hilton’s claim was accurate.
As it turns out, after a call to Mark Marino, a professor at the University of Southern California who uses selfies in his writing class to explore issues of identity, the claim was indeed proved to be false (“[t]he professor was dubious,” Jonah Engel Bromwich writes in the original Times article).

In 1839, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast named Robert Cornelius was the first to successfully take a photograph of himself without the assistance of others. He did so by setting up the camera in the back of the family store in Philadelphia, taking off the lens cap, and making a mad dash to get into frame. He posed for a minute before covering the lens up again.

Paris Hilton and the History of the Selfie
Robert Cornelius, 1839

In 1920, on the roof of the Marceau Studio in New York, a group of five mustached photographers working for the Byron Company took a photo of themselves, holding an antediluvian analog camera at arm’s length. Because the camera was actually being held by two of the photographers at the time the picture was taken, this might meet a more traditional definition of what has become to be known as a “selfie.”

Paris Hilton and the History of the Selfie

Paris Hilton and the History of the Selfie

In fact, the first usage of a selfie stick even preceded Paris Hilton’s 2006 photo. In a 1934 photo, Swedish couple Helmer and Naemi Larsson appear to use an actual stick in order to press the button on their camera.

Celebrities such as Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, and Madonna had been taking pictures of themselves for years before Hilton was even born. The word “selfie” itself had become popularized in 2002, four years before Hilton’s iconic photo was even taken, according to research by the Times and Marino.

However, there’s something to be said for Hilton’s enthusiasm and hubris in claiming she and Britney Spears invented the selfie. Perhaps she did, in a way, invent the “selfie” in its most modern form: two powerhouse celebrities in their prime having a good time, preserving a memory that would be reflected upon and debated in the years to come. But as a historical event, Hilton’s claim is, of course, false.


Read the New York Times article here.

Paris Hilton and the History of the Selfie