In January, Ryder Ripps, a 28-year-old conceptual artist in New York City, debuted an art exhibit devoted entirely to one woman’s Instagram account. The exhibition, Ho, comprised reappropriated and manipulated images of Adrianne Ho, a fitness model who gets paid by Nike, Supreme and other major companies to post photos of herself wearing their gear. Her brand-influenced selfies, shared with more than 300,000 followers, are a “constant reflexive feedback loop of ego,” says Ripps, whose show, which included the painting at right, was covered by press from the art world to The New York Times.
Together, Ripps and Ho (who had no involvement in Ripps’s show and recently blocked him on Instagram) represent more than just a Warholian artist and his muse. They reflect a new movement in which artists, nonartists and corporations alike are capitalizing on—and commodifying—the banal ubiquity of selfies, turning them into not only fine art but also marketing tools and cold, hard cash.
“I was surprised by how quickly brands began to approach me to have their products showcased in my selfies,” says Denelle Kennedy (below), a 26-year-old London photographer who exhibited a collection of selfies in Toronto last year. She describes the collection, titled Celfie, as a “deliberate overkill of Instagram clichés, calling attention to carefully considered yet seemingly spontaneous product placements and the ridiculousness of it all.” Ultimately, she refused to collaborate, saying sponsorship made her uncomfortable. “I was fascinated by their tactics to have me do the dirty work for them, sharing their brand and marketing it essentially for free,” she says.
That’s not to say Kennedy hasn’t cashed in. She’s sold some pieces for as much as $3,000. “I don’t think it’s crazy that a selfie will sell in a traditional art context,” she says. “To me the issue seems to be that it’s readily available, so why pay for it?”
So what makes one selfie worth more than another? For starters, exposure. The world’s most famous selfie—the snapshot Ellen DeGeneres took at the 2014 Oscars with 10 A-list actors—is, according to one advertising exec, worth $800 million because of its virality, and that’s not including the moolah Samsung paid to put its Galaxy smartphone in the host’s hands.
Another factor is whether selfie takers position their photos as art. In 2013, the same year Oxford Dictionaries crowned selfie its word of the year, 19 artists in London sold video slide shows of their selfies for $500 after a public exhibition. Last October, a group of performance artists took pictures of themselves in New York’s Union Square for an hour and sold the shots to onlookers for $25 a pop.
Could your selfie soon be hanging in a stranger’s living room? Consider this: A photo Buzz Aldrin took of himself in space 48 years ago recently went to auction, marketed as “the first space selfie.” Its sale price: $9,200.