19 August 2015

The First Portrait

"Self Portrait" Robert Cornelius (1839). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Today is World Photography Day. To honour the occasion, I’d like to look at an important photo in photography history—the first photographic portrait. 

The oldest known surviving photograph dates from either 1826 or 1827 when a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce took “View from the Window at Le Gras,” which depicted the view of his property from an upstairs window. After his death in 1833, his business partner, Louis Daguerre, continued their work and in 1839 announced to the public the creation of the daguerreotype, which would become the main photographic process used for the next 20 years.

In America 30-year-old Robert Cornelius, who specialized in silver plating at his family’s Philadelphia lamp manufacturing company and had an interest in chemistry, became interested in this new invention. A few months after Daguerre's announcement, Cornelius set up his own camera (whose lens was taken from a pair of opera glasses) behind his family’s store and took a self portrait. He wrote on the back, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.” He had successfully taken the first portrait of a person with a camera.

In the image Cornelius is off center and his hair is a bit of a mess but it’s a pretty good first attempt. (Sidenote, is it just me or does he not look like actor David Morrissey?) It’s also striking how modern Cornelius looks or maybe that's from seeing so many daguerreotypes of old Victorian men.

Cornelius continued to hone his skills as a photographer and opened the second photography studio in the US with chemist Paul Beck Goddard, who would improve on Daguerre’s process by adding bromine to iodine, which lessened exposure time. Yet after a couple of years Cornelius gave up photography and returned to the family business where he created new inventions including the first kerosene lamp. 

Only a few dozen of Cornelius' photographs are known to still exist. Luckily his self portrait is one of them. 

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