A crowded tram climbs into the hills above Los Angeles on a bright blue day in early spring. The views are grand — the city sprawling below us on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other  — but I find myself watching an elderly couple near the window. The woman, her white hair cut along her jawline like my grandma’s, admires a panorama of midcentury mansions, green treetops and golden canyons. Beside her, a man holds up a phone with his wrinkled hands, the camera recording this moment in time. It’s striking to see them adopting a habit endemic among members of my own younger generation.

The tram doors open, spilling visitors onto the broad, idyllic campus that is home to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Equipped with phone cameras, digital point-and-shoots, and even professional gear, we scatter across a flagstone courtyard, up stairways and along passages from one pavilion to another. Fountains and sculptures dot an outdoor garden — itself a piece of art — around several modern buildings of concrete, stone and glass. And in every corner, somebody is photographing a painting or posing with their companions. A camcorder is strapped to my own hand. 

The urge to document our lives on camera is often characterized as specific to young people in the age of social media, but we all do it. Phone cameras have made it easier and cheaper for the masses to capture images, but the same obsession fueled earlier phenomena, from disposable cameras, Polaroids and photobooths to scrapbooking and portrait studios. From a broader perspective, museums like this one act as repositories of our collective memory in visual form. This drive is uniquely human. What makes us want to keep images of ourselves and our kind?

We try to create a personal history, using photography to notate our lives and establish a connection with the rest of the world.

Humans have been documenting ourselves for as long as we’ve had the ability to do so. The earliest stone figures we’ve found are around 300,000 years ago, but the first known “selfie” dates to about 40,000 years ago, when a person on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia pressed her hand to a cave wall and sloshed it in red paint, creating a hand stencil like we all made in kindergarten. Across the millennia, we painted human figures performing ceremonies in Australia and alongside the animals we hunted in France; we carved them from wood in Siberia; and, much later, we sculpted them with terracotta in Romania. 

With the rise of civilization, art began to represent specific individuals — even the artist. The earliest known example comes from Egypt in the 14th century B.C., a carved stone slab depicting Bek, the pharaoh’s chief artist, and his wife. Phidias, the ancient Greek sculptor in charge of the relief panels that line the Parthenon, seems to have added his own image to a frieze depicting the “Battle of the Amazons.” And in the Roman Empire, powerful officials with less artistic talent commissioned realistic busts of themselves, with cosmetic flaws and even signs of medical conditions, as in “Head of a Roman Patrician.” 

Portraiture evolved along with society. The Moche people of pre-Columbian Peru crafted portraits on vases; their successors, the Chimú, did so in metals, notably silver. Traditional Chinese painting focuses on narrative, with portrait subjects blending in, often subtly. In Renaissance Europe, a wealthy merchant class could afford to hire painters to immortalize their image, as in the “Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck of 1434. The rise of the modern state gave certain court painters the resources and standing to sneak themselves into official portraits – as Diego Velasquez did in “Las Meninas” in 1656 — or paint less prominent subjects — as in “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” which depicts an enslaved man of North African descent, who Velasquez owned and eventually freed.

It’s easy to forget how expensive it was to create art, how precious the ingredients. Perhaps that is why the closest example to a modern selfie is probably “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk,” drawn on paper by Leonardo da Vinci in 1510, when he was about 60 years old. In it, a balding man with a long, flowing beard looks stern and, frankly, exhausted. It doesn’t seem meant for public display. But as modern economies made materials more accessible, artists like Rembrandt, Frida and Basquiat made painting selfies a significant part of their work. 

In 1839, a Parisian named Louis Daguerre invented a technique that would hand self-portraits over to the masses. Even da Vinci had dreamed of a “camera obscura,” essentially a pinhole camera the size of a room. But the daguerreotype was a process anybody could learn, captured with a device that could be carried anywhere, from a studio to the dusty streets of the Old West. This new medium was uniquely capable of holding up a mirror to our society’s successes and failures. While photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz recorded the celebrities we came to admire, Dorothea Lange and Robert Capa documented the poor we tried to ignore and the wars we’d rather forget. Diane Arbus presaged  the modern selfie in high art form.

But America’s economic boom after World War II made 35mm cameras accessible to ordinary families. Dads became the obnoxious art directors we know today, and by the 1970s, a typical mom could drop off a roll of film at a drive-thru and pick up the prints after a few days. A decade later, she could buy her daughter a disposable point-and-shoot to document a school field trip. They might sit together later to lay them out in an album with stickers and other supplies from the scrapbooking sector, launched in 1981 when Marielen Wadley Christensen opened a store called Keeping Memories Alive in Spanish Fork, Utah.

The scrapbooking industry peaked at $2.5 billion in 2005; camera sales grew until 2010, when more than 120 million were sold globally. But camera phones and social media changed the game. There are now an estimated 1.5 billion iPhone owners worldwide — just one example — and we use that camera. Beyond graduations and first days of school, we photograph our meals, what we wear (“fits,” to people my age), and our moods. It is reported that 61 percent of people use their phone camera every day. We often upload the images to social media, where we expect they’ll remain for the rest of history. 

If the internet has become the ultimate repository of our self-documentation as a species, art museums are an archive we can visit, each one a curated visual representation of some aspect of the human family. That makes the Getty a good place to interrogate what’s behind this impulse. Why do we all want to record our own image?

The items we pass down over generations become a form of knowledge for families, either through the objects, our emotional attachments to them, or the stories we inherit alongside them.

As I wander the pavillions, time feels jumbled, between the people beside me and those from the past whose portraits remain. I pause at “Portrait of a Bearded Man,” painted by the Venetian Jacopo Bassano in about 1550. Alone in the frame, cloaked in black, the subject turns his head to the side. Bags hang under his tearful green eyes. His hair looks buzzed, with a slight widow’s peak. For the first time, it hits me that this was a real person with a beating heart, who posed for a painter nearly 500 years ago. He had a name. Now, his image rests in a golden frame. 

There is nothing remarkable about that fact. Our lives are finite. But maybe that’s the key. Later, when I call Joe Marotta, a photographer and emeritus art professor at the University of Utah, he tells me a story about Daguerre. The father of photography once captured his own image and said, “Now my immortality is guaranteed.” Not in any spiritual or metaphysical sense, but rather, he meant that he would be remembered — and relevant — beyond the limited scope of his time on earth. “The photograph, in a sense, extends our mortality,” Marotta says.

He has spent a lifetime not just shooting images, but teaching and thinking about how we do it and why it matters. “We try to create a personal history,” he says. “I think everyone uses photography in that way, to notate their own lives and to somehow establish that connection with the rest of the world.” We want to remember our experiences, but these images also offer evidence that we were here. 

Long before he became a professor, Marotta was on a road construction crew in upstate New York when it rained for 28 days straight, spawning epic floods. He recounts a tide of water over 30 feet high that destroyed houses and the lives within them. “I remember walking down the street and everything was covered in mud,” he says. “And there was a photo album.” He picked it up and thumbed through images of an unknown family. “Some of these photographs went back to maybe 1860. And I said, ‘no one’s ever going to see this again.’ This history is gone now.”

A three-ringed scrapbook lies open on my grandmother’s living room floor. Candids of children are glued in an array of colored papers, with captions she wrote. Flipping through the pages, I see my mom as a teenager, along with the aunts and uncles I’ve only known as adults, safe behind protective film. In another — she has more than a dozen — I see old homes, pets and birthdays I was too young to remember. I start to feel small and existential. “I don’t want you to ever die, Grandma,” I say. “I’m not dead yet,” she says, shaking her head. 

My grandparents’ house in Utah is, much like a museum, the repository of our own family history. My grandpa, a dedicated “indexer,” has our genealogy records upstairs, in his office. My grandma’s work is down here, in the form of photo albums on the living room bookshelf. Her memory is stored here, not just frozen in each photograph, but in the collection itself that is the work of her hands. 

They’re certainly not alone. “Family history has arisen as a popular hobby across the globe,” write historians Katie Barclay and Nina Javetta Koefoed, in their 2020 article “Family, Memory, and Identity: An Introduction.” “Yet, as historians have been quick to point out, genealogy is not new to the present generation, and families have deployed a wide range of other mechanisms for recording family lineages and stories to ensure the survival of the family over time.” 

Examples of such mechanisms could be quilts or recipe collections, memorabilia and other heirlooms, as well as paintings, photographs or home movies. “The items that we pass down over generations become a key form of knowledge for families, either through the objects themselves, our emotional attachments to them, or the stories that we inherit alongside them,” the authors continue.

When I was about seven years old, my father turned around from the driver’s seat and asked why I always wanted to spend time with my grandparents. “They’re going to die sooner than us,” I said. The logic felt impeccable at the time. But later, as a teenager, I would roll my eyes when grown-ups talked about family history. When my grandpa raved about some obscure but important name he found up high in the branches of our family tree, I struggled to connect that to my modern self. That feels normal for the age, but at the Getty, I realize there may be a deeper reason.

The delicate curls, wide nose and strong lips remind me of my father and brothers. Clearly, the subject is a Black man. It’s the first piece at the Getty that looks this much like me. 

A face sculpted in black stone jars me out of a museum daze and into the moment. The delicate curls, wide nose and strong lips remind me of my father and brothers. Clearly, the subject is a Black man. But his bare chest and shoulders appear powerful and athletic, like those of a boxer — or perhaps a slave. Created by Francis Harwood in 1758, “Bust of a Man” may be one of the first sculptures of a Black person by a European artist. It’s the first piece at the Getty that looks much like me. 

My father — Papi — grew up without a camera phone or art museums. Photos were expensive in the Dominican Republic, so his family shared their history around a table, telling stories loudly and with laughter. He came to the U.S. because he ran fast enough, even with cardboard taped to the soles of his shoes, to earn a track scholarship. He married my mother, but we were never very close, even before they separated when I was a child. I’ve only met his mother — my abuela — and never even dreamed of traveling to his hometown. 

There are reasons for this, and they’re logical enough. I grew up in Utah, primarily raised by my mother’s parents, among that side of the family. The people around me looked roughly like the faces in the Getty: overwhelmingly white and European, most living in some degree of comfort. That was my world, whether or not I felt truly at home there. Still, above all else: I haven’t cared enough to be curious, to listen, or to learn about my other half. Maybe I’m not that different from the country I live in.

Now, I stare at “Bust of a Man,” waiting for an answer I know he cannot give. I stand still, like I’m facing a mirror. The bust is just over two feet tall, a head and chest resting on a small pedestal of wood and marble. “Although the identity of the sitter is unknown,” the plaque reads, “the scar on his face suggests this is a portrait of a specific individual.” 

Identity unknown, I repeat to myself.

It feels funny to point a camcorder at your own face, but it’s part of the experience. Maybe I’ll post a clip. Maybe I won’t. But the video will exist, and I’ll be able to remember this day as long as I have the technology to view it. It’s part of my identity that no longer depends on my ability — or desire — to remember it. Generation Z isn’t that different. We just use the tools available to us to accomplish something we’ve all longed for: to be present, and to be remembered.

View Comments

This memorial rests on a certain condition: the care of those who follow us. Some families, and the individuals that compose them, are doomed to be forgotten, at least in the temporal sense. Their memories are washed away, their images lost, their names erased, because they didn’t have the tools to change that. My father’s family doesn’t have to end up that way. I am ashamed now that I have valued only one side of my history. It seems so obvious: including the whole family makes for a broader and richer world. I have some work ahead of me. 

But today, camera phones and internet access are becoming nearly universal, bringing social media and selfies to even poverty-stricken areas of rural Asia or Africa, where clean water can still be difficult to keep around. Considering the role that our images play in our narrative as a human family, and the power that comes with joining the global conversation, this feels like a democratic process. Forget the cake, let them shoot photos!

I’m still self-conscious about my need to document everything, but I also think it’s important. And when I remember my grandma’s work, I realize something else. She didn’t build those scrapbooks for herself or even for the dead. She made them for my cousins, for me. So we can remember.   

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.