The World’s Earliest Photos
Nothing brings a genealogist more joy than the discovery of old family photographs. These pictures give us faces to the names on our family trees and bring with them stories that help enhance our understanding of how our relatives once lived. Today, we can instantly preserve and share memories with anyone around the world with just a click of a button. However, while it’s hard to imagine now, it hasn’t always been so easy to snap a photo. It wasn’t until the daguerreotype was first introduced 175 years ago that a practical photographic process was made available to the world.
In the early 19th century, French artist and physicist Louis Daguerre partnered with Nicéphore Niépce, an inventor who developed heliography to make the earliest known permanent photograph of a real-world scene. Together they strove to further develop and refine the photographing process. In 1833, Niépce died suddenly, leaving his notes to Daguerre. After years of work and experimentation, Daguerre made significant advancements in reducing the exposure time from hours to just a few minutes. Daguerre’s daguerreotype process was the first photographic process which required only minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear, finely detailed results. In a deal with the French government, Daguerre and Niépce’s son, Isidore, handed over the rights in exchange for lifetime pensions. On August 19, 1839, the French government presented the invention as a gift from France “free to the world.”
The daguerrotype proved to be very popular and the process quickly came into widespread use. People quickly began developing even better processes and by the early 1860s, processes that were less expensive and produced more easily viewed images had almost entirely replaced it.
Here’s a look at some of the earliest photographs in history:
The image is a manually enhanced version of Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras taken 1826 or 1827. It is the earliest surviving photograph of a real-world scene made using a camera.
The above image is a daguerreotype made by Daguerre in 1838. Named “Boulevard du Temple”, it is generally accepted as the earliest photograph to include people. It is a view of a busy street, but because the exposure time was at least ten minutes, the moving traffic left no trace. Only the two men near the bottom left corner, one apparently having his boots polished by the other, stayed in one place long enough to be visible.
A self-portrait of Robert Cornelius, this image is believed to be the earliest “selfie.” Taken October or November 1839, the back of the daguerreotype reads, “The first light picture ever taken.”
One of the oldest surviving portraits of a woman taken by Joseph Draper in 1839 or 1840. The woman pictured is his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper.
A daguerreotype portrait of Louis Daguerre taken in 1844.
The first durable color photograph taken by Thomas Sutton in 1861. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell had Sutton take this image of a tartan ribbon three times, each time with a different color filter over the lens. The images were then developed and projected onto a screen with three different projectors, each equipped with the same color filter used to take its image. When brought into focus, the three images formed a full color image. Maxwell’s work created the foundation for practical color photography.
What’s the oldest photo in your collection?