The First Photographs from History (the 19th century)

The first picture of a human being from Boulevard du Temple
Boulevard du Temple, which includes the very first image with a human being.

After the interest in our first recorded sounds in history post last week, we went and did some research into some of the first photographs.

This has fascinated us before and we knew about many of these images. Such as the first image featuring a human being. It dates to 1838.

That’s called Boulevard du Temple and it includes some bloke getting his shoes shined in Paris. This was taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851).

Whilst Paris may look a bit sparse on that day, the streets would have been bustling.

It’s just the time it would take for the exposure to do its thing meant photographs back then couldn’t record moving stuff.

So, for family pictures etc., everyone would have to sit very still for up to 120 seconds to avoid disappearing from history! Anyway, we figured it was all interesting enough to warrant a closer look.

Daguerreotype: The First Publicly Available Photographic Process

A daguerreotype camera

The hunt for such technology was in action from the Renaissance era onward, with many inventors and artists desperate to capture images of the real world.

Think of that beautiful sunset on the evening of 17th October, 1721. Lost to time, we’re afraid!

But in the early 19th century it became apparent the using silver iodide, silver bromide, and silver chloride could make the photographic process to metallic silver possible.

Many inventors gave it a whirl, but it was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who invented the daguerreotype and it became publicly available in 1839.

For it to work, the daguerreotypist (“photographer”, if you will) had to polish a sheet of silver-plated copper. Then treat that with fumes, expose it in a camera, and that would make the latent image visible by fuming it with mercury vaper.

Then they’d remove it and treat the thing in liquid chemical treatment, rinse it off, and dry it. The daguerreotypist would also quickly seal it behind glass in a picture frame to avoid it spoiling.

Daguerre experimented around with his contraption. Below you can see the earliest daguerreotype from 1837. It’s a still life of plaster casts.

Still life plaster cases as an early daguerreotype

Fabulous, right? But the oldest EVER surviving picture is actually from a decade early through a heliographic process.

We cover this in more detail below, but before we do let’s just say we did some research on this topic about a year ago.

And, as with the sound recordings feature we did, the thing that struck us was just how long ago all this stuff we now take for granted originated.

And there are some amazing images captured from the past. Let’s have a gander.

The Earliest Photographs From History

Right, so the oldest surviving photograph is this one. It’s called View from the Window at Le Gras. It was taken in either 1826 or 1827 by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833).

We’re not loading up the image as it looks awful. You can barely make anything out, but some people have digitally restored it.

But now let’s go off in a different territory. The first ever visual self-portrait!

Robert Cornelius self-portrait picture

That handsome chap was American photographer Robert Cornelius (1809-1893). The image is believed to be from 1839.

However, there’s some debate over this as French photographer and inventor Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) may have taken the first self-portrait.

Amongst others, Cornelius, Bayard, and Daguerre were the three leading lights in photography developer. The pioneers!

Not all of them were men! British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) became one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century. Here she is in June 1866.

Julia Margaret Cameron portrait

She did much more than basic portraits, creatively merging focus and light to create artistic pictures with nods to history, literature, and mythology.

Her goal was to rival traditional art (painting, sculpture etc.) with her work and make this a new form of personal expression.

Whilst the likes of Cameron were considering photography’s artistic merits, most people in society began taking them up as a way to create family mementos.

Self-portraits became something of a norm, with images replacing the traditional painted portraits used for many centuries.

Here’s a vast collection of pictured self-portraits from the 1840s.

Typically, this was a process for the wealthy to indulge in.

And it was also often a way to commemorate the recent passing of a loved one. Usually children, as early deaths were commonplace in the 19th century.

The result of this was a sudden boom in “death photography”, which became very popular. Simply as a lot of children wouldn’t survive to the age of five.

People had to sit very still in images to avoid blurring while waiting for exposure. And Victorian families would prop up their dead child in the image.

As they’d stay stock still, they’d often be the clearest in the picture.

Or they’d simply have a zoned out look, which the families would have understood at the time. What with it being a social norm. But with our modern sensibilities, it all comes across as eerie.

Death photography with children in the 19th century

And this was a common occurrence. For many families, it was the only picture they’d ever get of a sadly deceased child.

So, photographs quickly became the norm for people to document their family lives, with some images revealing more tragic stories.

And this extended into wider society, such as in the medical world.

Roy Porter’s A Short History of Medicine (2002) documents many experimental practices of the day. And the arrival of images for preservation of illnesses will have been an astonishing breakthrough.

Not least with rare cases. Such as the pictures taken of poor Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), who had to suffer horrendously through his short life. This image is from the late 1880s.

Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man

There are a series of other photographs his friend and doctor, Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), had commissioned as way to preserve the extent of Merrick’s deformities.

Merrick agreed to do some of these undressed. The hope being it would later help to find a cure for his condition, although it still confuses medical professionals.

But whilst some early photographers busied themselves documenting society, others wanted to capture the world around them.

For example, this image from 1884 is the first known picture of a tornado. It was taken in Kansas by A. A. Adams.

First picture of a tornado

More remarkably, in 1845 a pair of physicists were able to take the first ever picture of the sun.

Louis Fizeau (1819-1896) and Leon Foucault (1819-1868) used daguerreotype to capture a five inch image.

It was detailed enough to even pick up on a few sunspots.

First picture of the Sun

There are many first from the 19th century, of course, plus a lot of archived images of everyday happenings and of the world around the people of the time.

So, yes, there’s plenty more out there. If this type of thing interests you, head off for a look around online.

We could barely scratch the surface of the sheer amount of photographs available.

Many of which provided new views on human life and helped to shape the world in which we live today. All hail to those early pioneers!

19th Century People Having a Laugh

Victorian couple attempting not to laugh for portrait

Behold, above, a couple from the 1890s trying not to crap themselves laughing during an ultra-serious self-portrait.

To buck a few stereotypes here, we wanted to show a different side to the people of the 19th century.

One that considers something beyond the forlorn expressions in black and white, away from the death photography, and often disturbing medical documentation.

We tend to think of people back then, especially Victorian England folk, as utterly humourless and shocked by the most inane of matters.

Well, self-portraits were new for the time, so there was no set process of what lots of people do for selfies now (as in, try to look all coy at the camera whilst covering up your obvious vanity issues).

It was often more difficult to document, but, of course, people back then had a sense of humour.

Need proof? Here’s a Victorian lady arsing about for the camera.

Victorian lady pulling a silly face

And if you think only common, working class scumbags would indulge in such childish behaviour (!!!)… then think again!

Here’s Tsar Nicholas II (yes, the one executed with his family in 1918) and his mates goofing about for the camera. Apparently, this gem is from 1899.

Tsar Nicholas II and his friends messing around in 1899

Fascinating insights, we believe, into a time and place long gone.

But it shows we’re all human, despite the expanse of time that’s elapsed between their era and ours.

And given the extent we document daily life in modern times, we can’t help think future generations will look back at 2021 humans as self-absorbed morons.

And if they do, we hope they find our website. As Professional Moron documents the latest, and greatest, happenings in modern (and historical) life.


  1. Extraordinary! I had no idea anybody in the Victorian era was even capable of smiling. (I must admit I base this not just on photography but on my two horrible Great Aunts, who weren’t Victorian but should have been, so there might be a teeny flaw in my logic there.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is still a sect of British society that aims for the Victorian stereotypes. And are utterly hellbent on being as miserable as possible. When one is that haughty, one turns being dour into an artform.


  2. You mean documenting Hysterical Life?

    Anyway fabulous post. Love it all!
    I have a book “Dressed For The Photographer.” 1840 – 1900.
    It average Americans putting on their Sunday best for a photo. Some weddings and special occasions, too.
    It’s wonderful!


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