The photograph was invented in the early 19th century, but who invented it? Histories of photography point to several different independent inventors, most of them French: Nicéphore Niépce, for example, who in 1826 made the first work recognizable as a photograph, or more famously Louis Daguerre, honored for his invention of the daguerreotype photographic process by the French Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1839. But what about Daguerre’s contemporary Hippolyte Bayard, who had also been developing and refining his own form of photography? After going unacknowledged by the Academy, he had only one option left: suicide.
The Vox Darkroom video above tells the story of Bayard’s 1840 Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which depicts exactly what its title suggests: Bayard’s corpse, retrieved from the water and propped up unclaimed at the morgue. “The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself,” reads the note on the back of the photograph. “Oh the vagaries of human life….!”
A sorry tale, to be sure, and of a kind not unknown in the history of invention. But wait: how could a dead man shoot a “self-portrait”? And if indeed “no-one has recognized or claimed him,” as the note adds, who would have bothered to write the note itself?
Bayard, still very much alive, made Self Portrait as a Drowned Man as a kind of artistic stunt, the latest in a series of self-portraits testing his photographic process. The “morgue” shot contains some of the artifacts in its predecessors, including a garden statue, a floral vase, and Bayard’s signature broad straw hat. (Even the expression of death was of a piece with his previous self-portraits: the long exposure time meant he’d had to hold absolutely still with his eyes closed in all of them as well.) Until his death in 1887 — long after Daguerre had passed — Bayard continued experimenting with photography, creating reality-departing images including “double self portraits.” If he couldn’t go down as the inventor of the photograph, at least he could go down as the inventor of the fake photograph — a still-relevant invention, to say the least, given our increasingly complicated relationship with the truth in the 21st century.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.