The First Known Photograph of People Having a Beer (1843)

It should go with­out say­ing that one should drink respon­si­bly, for rea­sons per­tain­ing to life and limb as well as rep­u­ta­tion. The ubiq­ui­ty of still and video cam­eras means poten­tial­ly embar­rass­ing moments can end up on mil­lions of screens in an instant, copied, down­loaded, and saved for pos­ter­i­ty. Not so dur­ing the infan­cy of pho­tog­ra­phy, when it was a painstak­ing process with min­utes-long expo­sure times and arcane chem­i­cal devel­op­ment meth­ods. Pho­tograph­ing peo­ple gen­er­al­ly meant keep­ing them as still as pos­si­ble for sev­er­al min­utes, a require­ment that ren­dered can­did shots next to impos­si­ble.

We know the results of these ear­ly pho­to­graph­ic por­trai­ture from many a famous Daguerreo­type, named for its French inven­tor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. At the same time, dur­ing the 1830s and 40s, anoth­er process gained pop­u­lar­i­ty in Eng­land, called the Calo­type—or “Tal­bo­type,” for its inven­tor William Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot. “Upon hear­ing of the advent of the Daguerreo­type in 1839,” writes Linz Welch at the Unit­ed Pho­to­graph­ic Artists Gallery site, Tal­bot “felt moved to action to ful­ly refine the process that he had begun work on. He was able to short­en his expo­sure times great­ly and start­ed using a sim­i­lar form of cam­era for expo­sure on to his pre­pared paper neg­a­tives.”

This last fea­ture made the Calo­type more ver­sa­tile and mechan­i­cal­ly repro­ducible. And the short­ened expo­sure times seemed to enable some greater flex­i­bil­i­ty in the kinds of pho­tographs one could take. In the 1843 pho­to above, we have what appears to be an entire­ly unplanned group­ing of rev­el­ers, caught in a moment of cheer at the pub. Cre­at­ed by Scot­tish painter-pho­tog­ra­phers Robert Adam­son and David Octavius Hill—who grins, half-stand­ing, on the right—the image looks like almost no oth­er por­trait from the time. Rather than sit­ting rigid­ly, the fig­ures slouch casu­al­ly; rather than look­ing grim and mourn­ful, they smile and smirk, appar­ent­ly shar­ing a joke. The pho­to­graph is believed to be the first image of alco­holic con­sump­tion, and it does its sub­ject jus­tice.

Though Tal­bot patent­ed his Calo­type process in Eng­land in 1841, the restric­tions did not apply in Scot­land. “In fact,” the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art writes, “Tal­bot encour­aged its use there.” He main­tained a cor­re­spon­dence with inter­est­ed sci­en­tists, includ­ing Adamson’s old­er broth­er John, a pro­fes­sor of chem­istry. But the Calo­type was more of an artists’ medi­um. Where Daguerreo­types pro­duced, Welch writes, “a star­tling resem­blance of real­i­ty,” with clean lines and even tones, the Calo­type, with its salt print, “tend­ed to have high con­trast between lights and darks…. Addi­tion­al­ly, because of the paper fibers, the image would present with a grain that would dif­fuse the details.” We see this espe­cial­ly in the cap­tur­ing of Octavius Hill, who appears both life­like in motion and ren­dered artis­ti­cal­ly with char­coal or brush.

The oth­er two figures—James Bal­lan­tine, writer, stained-glass artist, and son of an Edin­burgh brew­er, and Dr. George Bell, in the center—have the rak­ish air of char­ac­ters in a William Hog­a­rth scene. The Nation­al Gal­leries of Scot­land attrib­ut­es the nat­u­ral­ness of these pos­es to “Hill’s socia­bil­i­ty, humour and his capac­i­ty to gauge the sit­ters’ char­ac­ters.” Sure­ly the booze did its part in loos­en­ing every­one up. The three men are said to be drink­ing Edin­burgh Ale, “accord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary account… ‘a potent flu­id, which almost glued the lips of the drinker togeth­er.’ ” Such a side effect would, at least, make it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to over-imbibe.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017.

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Relat­ed Con­tent

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

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

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

The First Faked Pho­to­graph (1840)

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

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

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