Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022
The first photograph ever, the first photograph with people, the first photographic portrait — at least what we know of
August 19 is World Photography Day. Let’s rewind to the early days of photography.
In 1826 or 1827, after unsuccessfully trying for years to fix the image to make his photographs permanent, the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) captured the photograph that is known to be the earliest surviving photo. The grainy picture with rooftops and trees shows the view from a window at the Niépce family estate, Le Gras. Exposure time: 8 hours, maybe more.
Another Frenchman, and a partner of Niépce, Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), went on to develop the daguerreotype process, which required only minutes of exposure in the camera. This was the first publicly announced photographic process, and the most commonly used for nearly twenty years. It was introduced to the world in 1839, the year which has become the official birth year of photography.
Niépce remained unknown to the larger public until his iconic photo was rediscovered by historians in the 1950s. It’s on display in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Niépce has gotten the recognition he deserved. He even has a lunar crater named after him. As does Daguerre.
Niépce’s photo is listed among Life Magazine’s 100 photographs that changed the world, alongside Earthrise 1968 as seen from Apollo 8, Nagasaki 1945, and Tiananmen Square 1989.
First known photograph with people
The picture below of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838, is the earliest known photograph that includes a person. At the lower right, we see a man having his boots polished. There also seems to be a young girl looking out of the top window of the white building in the front. There might be other people as well who remained still long enough to appear in the photograph. It was actually a busy street, but because of the several minutes long exposure time the moving objects were too fast to be visible.
First photographic portrait
In 1839, Robert Cornelius (1809–1893) took what is considered the first portrait photograph. It’s a self-portrait (first selfie, if you will). He had to sit motionless for 10–15 minutes. On the back is written, “The first light picture ever taken.”
These Elderly New Yorkers Were First Generation to Ever Be Photographed — many of them were born in the 1700s
Sidebar photo: Boulevard du Temple in Paris, taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838