Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's Not the Earliest Photo of a Human Being Ever, Mr. Krulwich

I keep seeing on the internet the very popular blog post from Robert Krulwich of NPR, who writes about science--the post in which he asked "Is this the earliest photograph of a human being ever?" And he's talking about a daguerreotype taken in Cincinnati in 1848.

Well, it's not, and it's driving me crazy to keep reading this. So I finally posted the following comment on his blog--don't know if he'll ever read it.

"I hope I am not the first collector of antique photographs to write and tell you that a photograph of a human being dated 1848 is not at all early, much less "the first photo of a human being ever." Daguerre revealed the secrets of his process in Paris in August of 1839 and Samuel B. Morse brought the process to the United States and had taken a successful daguerreotype of a church by September 28th, 1839.. (the same guy who invented the telegraph.) He immediately started taking portraits and by early Oct. 1839 he had succeeded in making "full length portraits of my daughter single and also in groups with some of her young friends...taken out of doors, on the roof of a building in the full sunlight, with the eyes closed. The time was from ten to twenty minutes."" in Newhall's book "The Daguerreotype in America" you will find a "self-portrait of Henry Fitz Jr, " taken around 1839--also with his eyes closed due to the long exposure time needed. By the 1840's the exposure time was considerably shorter, eyes were open and daguerreotype mania was sweeping across America. I have in my own collection many daguerreotypes of humans taken well before the 1848 Cincinnati image that you propose is "one of the first ever taken."

Joan Gage
October 27, 2010 9:54:26 PM EDT

And just so you'll know what he wrote in the first place, it's this:

First Photo Of A Human Being Ever?

Back in September, we posted a set of old photos of Cincinnati daguerreotypes from 1848 where I caught a glimpse of two people at the Ohio River's edge. That would make them among the very first people ever to appear in a candid photograph. 1848 is a long time ago. They looked like a pair of men, one tall, the other short. They were standing with what looked like a bucket between them. I figured they were there to fetch some water. I then went on in my way to talk about cholera.
Well, an eagle-eyed reader who calls himself Hokumburg (and has a spectacular blog of his own, The Hokumburg Goombah) did his own investigation, enlarged our photo, and peered more closely:

University of Rochester

And he wrote:
I have lightened it up a bit and messed with the contrast a little, and I think the man on the left is standing behind the wooden beam wall (wharf? dock?) with his left leg up on the wall and his left hand resting on his knee, while the man on the right is standing on top of that wall. What do you think?

Well, what I think is that he's right. I think he's picked up details that escaped even the very good folks at the University of Rochester and the conservation lab at George Eastman House. I think he’s a superb forensic picture-watcher.
Which does raise the intriguing (and unanswerable) question, what were those guys doing at the river’s edge? If not hoisting water in a bucket, what? His answer:
I think they've just come down to stare at the river, as people here in St. Louis go down to stare at the Mississippi every day. A river has an irresistible pull on some of us...

Louis Daguerre/via

My admiration for Hokumburg jumped another notch when I discovered that on his own blog he'd come up with a city photo older than ours, which he claims may contain the "first photograph of a human being." Wow! I didn’t check with the experts, but here's his picture.
It comes from 1838 and was taken by Louis Daguerre himself. The scene is from Paris. It's a view of the Boulevard du Temple.
He writes there were probably people wandering through this scene on that day, but if they didn’t stay still, the camera would have missed them. Only one man shows up. He is on the sidewalk down on the lower left of the photo.
To achieve this image (one of his earliest attempts), he exposed a chemically treated metal plate for ten minutes. Others were walking or riding in carriages down that busy street that day, but because they moved, they didn't show up. Only this guy stood still long enough — maybe to have his boots shined — to leave an image.
Other primitive forms of photography had preceded this picture by over a decade. But this anonymous shadowy man is the first human being to ever have his picture taken. There is also the very faint image of the bootblack bent over his work.
Odds are neither of them ever knew they were making history that day.
I am impressed. Thank you Mr. Hokumburg, whoever you are. (Dunno why, but I am guessing you are a "mister.")

Joan says: Now there is a possibility tht the tiny, almost invisible figure in the Daguerre image might be the first image of a human being ever--if it was in 1838--but the dags. that Morse took of his children are certainly in the running--because we know the dates for those.

1 comment:

lactmama said...

Hard to believe the George Eastman folk would agree with this dude. Hast he not taken a foto history class? We have all seen the Cincinnati photo somewhere along the line.