The First Faked Photograph (1840)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

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

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

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Cre­ates Real­is­tic Pho­tos of Peo­ple, None of Whom Actu­al­ly Exist

Long Before Pho­to­shop, the Sovi­ets Mas­tered the Art of Eras­ing Peo­ple from Pho­tographs — and His­to­ry Too

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

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.

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