See the First Photograph of a Human Being: A Photo Taken by Louis Daguerre (1838)

You’ve like­ly heard the rea­son peo­ple nev­er smile in very old pho­tographs. Ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy could be an excru­ci­at­ing­ly slow process. With expo­sure times of up to 15 min­utes, por­trait sub­jects found it impos­si­ble to hold a grin, which could eas­i­ly slip into a pained gri­mace and ruin the pic­ture. A few min­utes rep­re­sent­ed marked improve­ment on the time it took to make the very first pho­to­graph, Nicéphore Niépce’s 1826 “heli­o­graph.” Cap­tur­ing the shapes of light and shad­ow out­side his win­dow, Niépce’s image “required an eight-hour expo­sure,” notes the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, “long enough that the sun­light reflects off both sides of the build­ings.”

Niépce’s busi­ness and invent­ing part­ner is much more well-known: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who went on after Niépce’s death in 1833 to devel­op the Daguerreo­type process, patent­ing it in 1839. That same year, the first self­ie was born. And the year pri­or Daguerre him­self took what most believe to be the very first pho­to­graph of a human, in a street scene of the Boule­vard du Tem­ple in Paris. The image shows us one of Daguerre’s ear­ly suc­cess­ful attempts at image-mak­ing, in which, writes NPR’s Robert Krul­wich, “he exposed a chem­i­cal­ly treat­ed met­al plate for ten min­utes. Oth­ers were walk­ing or rid­ing in car­riages down that busy street that day, but because they moved, they didn’t show up.”

Vis­i­ble, how­ev­er, in the low­er left quad­rant is a man stand­ing with his hands behind his back, one leg perched on a plat­form. A clos­er look reveals the fuzzy out­line of the per­son shin­ing his boots. A much fin­er-grained analy­sis of the pho­to­graph shows what may be oth­er, less dis­tinct fig­ures, includ­ing what looks like two women with a cart or pram, a child’s face in a win­dow, and var­i­ous oth­er passers­by. The pho­to­graph marks a his­tor­i­cal­ly impor­tant peri­od in the devel­op­ment of the medi­um, one in which pho­tog­ra­phy passed from curios­i­ty to rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­o­gy for both artists and sci­en­tists.

Although Daguerre had been work­ing on a reli­able method since the 1820s, it wasn’t until 1838, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art explains, that his “con­tin­ued exper­i­ments pro­gressed to the point where he felt com­fort­able show­ing exam­ples of the new medi­um to select­ed artists and sci­en­tists in the hope of lin­ing up investors.” Photography’s most pop­u­lar 19th cen­tu­ry use—perhaps then as now—was as a means of cap­tur­ing faces. But Daguerre’s ear­li­est plates “were still life com­po­si­tions of plas­ter casts after antique sculp­ture,” lend­ing “the ‘aura’ of art to pic­tures made by mechan­i­cal means.” He also took pho­tographs of shells and fos­sils, demon­strat­ing the medium’s util­i­ty for sci­en­tif­ic pur­pos­es.

If por­traits were per­haps less inter­est­ing to Daguerre’s investors, they were essen­tial to his suc­ces­sors and admir­ers. Can­did shots of peo­ple mov­ing about their dai­ly lives as in this Paris street scene, how­ev­er, proved next to impos­si­ble for sev­er­al more decades. What was for­mer­ly believed to be the old­est such pho­to­graph, an 1848 image from Cincin­nati, shows what appears to be two men stand­ing at the edge of the Ohio Riv­er. It seems as though they’ve come to fetch water, but they must have been stand­ing very still to have appeared so clear­ly. Pho­tog­ra­phy seemed to stop time, freez­ing a sta­t­ic moment for­ev­er in phys­i­cal form. Blurred images of peo­ple mov­ing through the frame expose the illu­sion. Even in the stillest, stiffest of images, there is move­ment, an insight Ead­weard Muy­bridge would make cen­tral to his exper­i­ments in motion pho­tog­ra­phy just a few decades after Daguerre debuted his world-famous method.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

See The First “Self­ie” In His­to­ry Tak­en by Robert Cor­nelius, a Philadel­phia Chemist, in 1839

Ead­weard Muybridge’s Motion Pho­tog­ra­phy Exper­i­ments from the 1870s Pre­sent­ed in 93 Ani­mat­ed Gifs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (4)
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  • gg says:

    Your title could be bet­ter. It is inter­est­ing (and regret­table) how the first pic­ture of “humans” is here titled the first pic­ture of “a human being.”

    The per­son shin­ing the shoes is as much a per­son as the per­son giv­en a big red arrow.

    We are con­di­tioned to con­sid­er a cus­tomer to be more wor­thy of atten­tion than a work­er or ser­vant. This bias extends to anony­mous shad­ows of pre­vi­ous cen­turies.

    The cam­era cap­tures an instance, a frozen moment in time. There is no first, or sec­ond, per­son. Both are blur­ry but the pho­to is not a video, one per­son can­not actu­al­ly arrive to the pho­to before anoth­er.

  • joe says:

    The full pic­ture is very strik­ing. I read some­where (may even have been here) that it’s a myth about smil­ing and long expo­sures. It was sim­ply not some­thing peo­ple did and that there are smi­ley pics knock­ing around. Any­way, I’m off to Streetview Boule­vard du Tem­ple.

  • LI says:

    It’s more an image WITH a human in it rather than an image OF a human.

  • candice says:

    whos joe

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