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Big. Daguerreotype Big.
Nov 2010
Nov. 8, 2010 — Who was the first person ever to be photographed? A president? A general on the eve of battle? An assistant to a tinkerer somewhere, sort of the Mr. Watson of the camera obscura set?

We don’t know who he was, actually. We know only that he strolled on to a busy Paris street one day in the Spring of 1838, that he stopped to have his boots shined, and that he stopped long enough to appear on a Daguerreotype with an exposure time of more than 10 minutes. Of all the people on the street that day - of all the merchants, officers and keen-eyed flaneurs - only he and the person kneeling in front of him polishing his boots are plainly visible in this historic image, made by Louis Daguerre himself.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I stumbled across the image last week while avoiding other, likely more productive pursuits and was fascinated by the gentleman featured in it. Surely he had no idea of the bit part he was playing in a story that reached back to the late Renaissance and would stretch into the 21st century; he probably saw nothing at all remarkable about that morning or afternoon. And yet there he is, the focal point of an image that represented a triumph of optical technology and photochemistry, a photographic process that would spark a revolution in how we see.

The image itself has stirred some interest of late. After NPR blogger Robert Krulwich reported an 1848 Daguerreotype of Cincinnati where he spotted two people on the water’s edge — making them, he believed, the first people ever to appear in a candid photograph — a reader going by the name of Hokumbug wrote in with some observations. Following up, Krulwich discovered the 1838 Paris scene on Hokumbug’s blog, with apparently the first-ever person to appear in a photograph.

The story continued when another reader, this one going by the name of Charles Leo (Toxic), colorized the image to see what else was going on and sent an annotated copy to Krulwich. This image shows what may be other adults and a child, for example, and suggests the Daguerreotype might actually have been taken in the Fall, based on the appearance of denuded trees. Check it out here. The results are fascinating.

In a Simpsons episode from some years ago, Mr. Burns announces a plan to buy up the Internet, one domain at a time. “My top men tell the Internet is going to be big!” he says. “Daguerreotype big!” It’s a good line, because Mr. Burns’ points of reference are often a century or two behind but also because the Daguerreotype’s dominance was actually relatively short-lived.

The fact is, though: We’re still talking about the technology, and we still recognize its introduction as a watershed moment. The Daguerreotype allowed us, for the first time, to reproduce mechanically what we saw with our eyes, to capture moments in time with astonishing fidelity and share them with others — even some 170 years later. And that, of course, is kind of big.

Basic ScienceCharles Leo (Toxic)DaguerredaguerreotypeDifferent WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogHokumbugKrulwichLouisLouis DaguerreMr. BurnsNPRParisRobertRobert KrulwichSimpsons

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