First photo First photo in 3D First colour photo First colour photo in 3D

First photo

1. The technology

2. The human subject


First photo of a person

the first ever photo of a human being: daguerreotype taken in Paris by Louis Daguerre

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3. Arondissement is the first ever photograph of a human being. The daguerreotype was taken in Paris by Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), on a date that has been calculated as between 24 April and 4 May 1838. It is of a busy street, but because exposure time was over ten minutes, the city traffic was moving too much to appear. The exception is a man in the bottom left corner, who stood still getting his boots polished long enough to show. Less discernible, but also visible, is the boot black. As Geoffrey Batchen has noted, this is therefore also the first photo to illustrate both labour and class difference. See also Jenkins, who notes the possibility that there are one or two other people also discernible.

Daguerre gave three daguerreotypes, of which this was one, to King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and they were displayed at the Arts Association in Munich from 20 October 1839. Eventually they came into the custody of the Fotomuseum in Munich, where in the 1970s an attempt at cleaning succeeded in erasing the images. The image as seen today is a reproduction of a photographic copy made by Beaumont Newhall, the historian of photography, in 1937. [History of Art: History of Photography]



First portrait photo of a person

earliest surviving photographic portrait of a human: Robert Cornelius

According to John Johnson (1813–1871), the first daguerreotype portrait was of himself, made in New York by Alexander S. Wolcott (1804–1844) on 6 or 7 October 1839. This was tiny, and has not survived. (Hannavy) However, Howard R. McManus has convincingly argued that John William Draper (1811–1882), professor of chemistry at the University of New York, accomplished successful portrait daguerreotypes as early as 23 September 1839, the first such being of his assistant William Henry Goode, taken in the university chapel. (McManus—First) Draper's daguerreotype of Goode is said to have still been in existence in 1890. (Eder) McManus includes an image of a flawed daguerreotype plate (from his own collection), in which the subject is very difficult to make out, but which he speculates may in fact be an experimental portrait photograph of William Henry Goode, from 22 or 23 September 1839.

Generally accepted as the earliest surviving photographic portrait image of a human ever produced is the approximately quarter plate daguerreotype by Robert Cornelius [1809–1893], a head-and-shoulders [self-]portrait, facing front, with arms crossed (above), dating from 1839 [Oct. or Nov.]. [LC-USZC4-5001 DLC]. Written on the paper backing is "The first light picture ever taken. 1839." The photograph, now at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, was taken outside his place of business on 8th Street between Market and Chestnut, in Philadelphia.

The Cornelius daguerreotype is not uncontested as the earliest surviving photographic portrait. Another strong contender is the self-portrait of the Baltimore daguerreotypist Henry Fitz (1808–1863), now held by the Smithsonian, which also dates from late 1839. This is reproduced in Newhall, and in Wikimedia Commons.



First photo, and first portrait photo, of a woman

first photo, and first portrait photo, of a woman: Dorothy Catherine Draper, by her brother

In 1855 the photographer Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872) claimed that he had taken full-length portrait daguerreotypes of his daughter, and also photographs of her in groups with some of her young friends, in September or the beginning of October 1839. All that survives is a crude wood-engraving of a double portrait, reproduced in Root.

This image of Dorothy Catherine Draper (1807–1901) is a copy of the earliest surviving photograph of a woman. John William Draper (1811–1882), professor of chemistry at the University of New York, built his own camera and made this portrait of his sister in early 1840 (notwithstanding the inscription), after a 65-second exposure. The image is from the Westchester Archives.

The original daguerreotype is now held by the Spencer Museum of Art, in Lawrence, Kansas, on indefinite loan from the Kansas State Historical Society. An image of the daguerreotype itself (dated to 1840 by the Museum) may be found on the museum website; this graphically shows the damage caused by an attempt at cleaning it in 1934, described here. That said, it appears that the damaged daguerreotype itself was a copy, and at least three other daguerreian copies are now known. (McManus—Famous)



Earliest-born person to be photographed

earliest-born person to be photographed: John Adams

The earliest-born person to be photographed was probably John Adams, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 22 January 1745, the son of Captain Thomas Adams and Lydia Chadwick. A shoemaker, he died on 26 March 1849, in Harford, Pennsylvania, aged 104, having made himself a new pair of shoes in his final year. A photographic copy of a daguerreotype (the whereabouts of the original being unknown) is in the possession of the Susquehanna County Historical Society. This image is from Taylor (2013).

Another contender (to me unconvincing) is Baltus Stone, an American revolutionary war veteran, of whom an 1846 quarter-plate daguerreotype was sold at Sotheby's, New York, on 6 October 2010, for $16,250. A manuscript inscription laid over the case lining states that Stone was born in October 1744. The catalogue notes quote from an obituary printed in the National Intelligencer for 27 October 1846, in which it was claimed that the deceased was 103 years and 16 days old at the time of his death on 22 October, which would suggest a birth year of 1743. However the Copes-Bissett family Bible (recording the family of Baltus Stone's presumed daughter Hannah, who married George Vessels Copes) states that "Bolltes Stone was born the 7th of June in the year of our Lord 1747". Additionally, in Stone's own declaration before the district court, when claiming his Revolutionary War Pension on 8 September 1820, he is said to be "aged sixty six years"—i.e. implying a birth year of 1754. It is not unlikely that his great age had been somewhat inflated by the time of his death. [Ahnentafel of Charles William Wolfram; Revolutionary War Pensions Files, file S41190]

The New York Historical Society has a 1/6th plate daguerreotype of a slave named Caesar, taken in 1851, at which date the subject was supposedly 114 years old (New York Historical Society Cased Photograph File, PR-012-2-323). If true, his birth year—approximately 1737—would easily make him front-runner. However, no contemporary evidence for his age or birth year is presented. The catalogue states that a typewritten slip mounted on the verso of the frame reads: "Ceasar [i.e. Caesar], born a slave of Van R. [Rensselaer] Nicoll, son of William, in 1737 at Bethlehem, N.Y., where he died in 1852. The last slave to die in the North. This daguerreotype was taken in 1851. His 2nd master was Francis Nicoll, son of Van R. Nicoll and his 3rd master Wm. Nicoll Sill, grandson of Francis who left all to his wife Margaret Sill . . ." [NYHS catalogue]. Taylor has a little more history of Caesar's ownership, but adds nothing confirming his year of birth. The NYHS have advised that "His date of birth can't really be confirmed." [private communication] The only public record so far located, giving any credence at all to Caesar's age, is the 7 Aug 1850 entry in the US census for the town of Bethlehem, Albany County, New York, which records "Cesar Nicholls", aged 110, in the household of Margaret Sill. [Thanks to Nate Kelley for this reference.]


Earliest-born woman to be photographed

The earliest-born photographed woman so far located is Elizabeth Cutler (23 December 1753 – 1 May 1849), of Holliston, Massachusetts, of whom a daguerreotype in the possession of the New England Historic Genealogical Society is reproduced in Taylor. It strikes me that the image was possibly made post mortem.

Taylor reproduces an imposing carte de visite of the African American Flora Stewart [the image is also online], for whom a range of possible ages is given, translating to birth years in the range 1748–1765. As with Caesar, however, it's impossible to confirm the birth year, and the earlier dates appear exaggerated.

Some Ancestry trees [e.g. this] have a photograph of a Cherokee woman named Rebecca Nation, said to have been born in Alabama in 1750 or 1752. No sources are given for the alleged birth years, however.


The case of Hannah Stilley Gorby

The veritable Internet meme that the above-named was the earliest-born woman (or even the earliest-born person) to be photographed is unsustainable.

All that can be established for certain about Hannah (Stilley) Gorby's life dates is that she was born as Hannah Stille c. 1746 [Craig, which has her as listed in a 1764 church census], daughter to Jonathon and Magdalena (Vanderveer) Stille [Craig]; that she married Joseph Gorby on 2 December 1770 [Craig]; and that she probably died after 1830. [The US federal census for 1830 shows the names of heads of households only, with bare demographics of other household members. Joseph Gorby's household is recorded in Brandywine Hundred, New Castle, Delaware, and includes a female aged 80 through 89, who may be assumed to be Hannah]. It seems likely that Hannah died before 1840, as there is no trace of her—or indeed Joseph—in the 1840 federal census. There is, however, no record of her death or burial, so in theory she could have lived beyond this date.

The photograph customarily identified as being of Hannah Stilley Gorby first appears as a halftone reproduction on p79 of Alva Gorby's 1936 book of The Gorby family. Origin, History and Genealogy. This appears to be the only source for the identification of this portrait photograph with Hannah Stilley Gorby. Yet Alva Gorby's book can't be relied upon here, not least because she herself makes a significant error in partnering her with Joseph Gorby II, when in fact she was married to the latter's son, Joseph Gorby III. She nevertheless had no hesitation in saying that "it is not known when he and Hannah Stilley Gorby died nor where they are buried".

Of the picture itself, Alva says that it was in the possession of Mr Lewis Vernon Justison, of East Palestine Ohio, and that it depicts "Hannah Stilley Gorby in her enormously frilled cap, though from the few lines in her face she was not a very old woman." [p24] Later in the same book she says that Justison "has quaint old pictures of Hannah (Stilley) Gorby, wife of Joseph, and of Ann (Pierce) Gorby, wife of Samuel—II and III generations. Both are wearing their quaint, frilly caps, yet few lines show in their smooth, sweet looking faces. In those days women did all in their power to make old women of themselves quite early in life." [pp117–8] While it may well be that the halftone picture reproduced represents the picture Alva describes, it is difficult to see how she could have seen the photograph as being of anything other than an old woman. Conceivably Mr Justison's picture—nowhere actually referred to as a photograph—was a pre-photographic portrait, but if so it would be very surprising if Alva chose to reproduce a photograph she hadn't described, but not the portrait as described. A further possibility has to be that the photograph reproduced was incorrectly identified, or incorrectly captioned, by Alva Gorby.

Finally, what evidence is there that Hannah Gorby lived into the age of photography? The answer appears to be, None at all. One Ancestry user has explicitly put forward the argument that "The Daguerreotype Process for taking photographs was not made public until 1840, so for a photograph of Hannah Stilley Gorby to exist, she must have lived past 1840 into her 90s." But of course this is wholly predicated on the subject of the photograph being Hannah Stilley Gorby, which has not been demonstrated, and on an objective assessment of the available evidence appears unlikely. There were no commercial photographic studios in the USA until Alexander S. Wolcott opened his in New York in March 1840 [Taft]. For Hannah Stilley Gorby to have been photographed, in a way that fits all known facts, she would have had to travel to New York after March 1840, be photographed, then die before census day on 1 June that year. In the absence of any evidence to this effect, this stretches credulity too far.

First passport photo

The USA was the first country to require the use of photographs on passports, in 1914, followed shortly after by the UK and the rest of the British Empire, from February 1915. [Pietras; Parkinson] UK passports number 1-99 are held at the National Archives (TNA: PRO FO 115/1953), but are unfit for production, as mould damaged. [TNA]

The US passport shown above is dated 2 March 1915, and includes the earliest passport photograph so far located. Although issued in the name of Bertha L. Watson, it actually represented Margaret Sanger, travelling under a pseudonym. [Sanger Papers]


First mug shot

The earliest surviving police photographs of criminals were daguerreotypes taken in Brussels in 1843 or 1844. There are four such, of which this is said to date from 1843.

However, the Philadelphia Public Ledger for 30 November 1841 reported that persons arrested in France were already being photographed at that date, for future reference. It doesn't appear that any of these survive. [Buckland; Nichols; Moenssens]

The standardisation of mug shots, with a profile view as well as a full face, was developed by 1883 by Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914). The earliest so far located is this 1891 portrait of Bertillon himself. [Oltuski; Moenssens]



Full references for printed works

Geoffrey Batchen (1997) Burning with Desire. The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: MIT Press

Gail Buckland (1980) First Photographs. New York: Macmillan

Josef Maria Eder (1932, tr. 1945) History of Photography, 3rd edn. New York: Dover

Helmut & Alison Gernsback (1969 rev.) The History of Photography from the camera obscura to the beginning of the modern era. London: Thames & Hudson

John Hannavy, ed. (2005) Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. New York and Abingdon: Routledge

Beaumont Newhall (1976) The Daguerreotype in America. 3rd revised edition: Dover Publications

Robert Taft (1938) Photography and the American Scene. New York: Macmillan

Maureen Taylor (2010) The Last Muster. Images of the Revolutionary War Generation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press

____ (2013) The Last Muster. Volume 2. Faces of the American Revolution. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press


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