Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Firsts in Photography (Maybe)

Firsts in any field are important and usually treasured and photography is no exception. Occasionally, when talking to a group, I will ask if anyone knows roughly when the first photograph was taken. The answers vary widely generally according to age. Adults know that there are photographs from the Civil War and thus the process must pre-date 1861. Younger folks tend to not think in that way and will say anything from 1940 to the 50s. The truth is below... Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce took the image below from the window of his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house. It shows the the outbuildings, courtyard, trees and landscape as seen from the window. The year was 1826.Shot above is enhanced... original is shown in the two shots below. Talk about archival quality.
Exposure time was eight hours on a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (a kind of asphalt). After the exposure the plate was removed and the latent image was rendered visible by washing it with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The photograph which Niepce called a "Heliograph" is now in the collection of the University of Texas at Austin.

Below.... the first photograph of a person? Due to the very long exposures involved in making the early photographs, there exist almost no early pictures with people in them. The image below of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris was a ten-minute exposure of the street scene in April or May of 1838. Although there was probably much traffic both pedestrian and vehicular on the Boulevard the length of the exposure meant that anything moving would not be recorded. The exception is the man standing on the corner apparently getting his boots shined.... he stood still long enough to become a part of pictorial history.
The above image is a a Daguerrotype a metal plate coated with silver halide that, after exposure, was placed over a lightly heated cup of mercury which revealed the latent image.
The process was developed by Louis Daguerre together with Niepce creator of the first image above. The process was patented in 1839. Is this the first photograph of a living person? It certainly is for now. I can just imagine trying to photograph a two year old with a ten-minute exposure. Thank the Lord for digital.


  1. Pretty interesting, people sure had a lot of patience then

  2. I'd say the first photograph of a person was the Shroud if Turin, but you said "living" so . .

  3. Excellent point... one which both scientists and theologians could weigh in on. Since the Shroud image is a "photographic" negative one could certainly argue it was "first"... however, repeatability is a cornerstone of the scientific method... so until I die we won't have a second one.

  4. I have a 2 volume set of "Photographic History of the Civil War". Two HUGE volumes of photos, many of which I had never seen before, and that makes these pretty special.

    I may still have my History of Photography book around somewhere from the college days. Got my degree in Photo, but don't use it much now.

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