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20 of the First Photographs of Things, from People to Hoaxes to the Moon

by Allison Meier on September 12, 2013

The first photograph ever  by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826 or 1827) (via University of Texas at Austin)

The first photograph ever by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826 or 1827) (via University of Texas at Austin)

It might look like an abstract field of faded hues, but this is the oldest photograph ever taken.

More accurately, it’s the first photograph from “nature” taken, as its creator Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had taken a photograph of an engraving in 1825 with heliography prior to this capture out his window in Burgundy, France in 1826 or 1827. Back in 1963, it was acquired by the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and is generally heralded as the rising light of the dawn that signaled the photographic age.

Over at LiveLeak.com is a list of some Earliest Surviving Photographs of Events and Things: Part I (we eagerly await Part 2), that’s accompanied by a video by YouTube user Chubachus. Below, we’ve compiled together some of these listed photographs, as well as some of our own additions, of photographic firsts from the beginnings of photography all to way to the newest landmarks in capturing visually things which were previously imperceptible to our human eyes.

First Photograph of a Person

view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris by Louis Daguerre from 1838, believed to be the first photograph of a person (via Wikimedia)

view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris by Louis Daguerre from 1838, believed to be the first photograph of a person (via Wikimedia)

Photography pioneer Louis Daguerre took this image of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris in 1838, and unintentionally recorded the first person in a photograph. As Retronaut describes, the figure down at the bottom left getting his shoes shined was the only person on the street during the long exposure to pause long enough to appear.

Oldest Photograph of New York City

Oldest known photograph of New York City, showing the Upper West Side in 1848 (via Sotheby's)

Oldest known photograph of New York City, showing the Upper West Side in 1848 (via Sotheby’s)

This 1848 daguerreotype of what would be the Upper West Side of Manhattan showing an idyllic scene was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2009 for $62,500. Sadly, as the New-York Historical Society states, the actual earliest photograph of New York City by Samuel F.B. Morse of a Unitarian Church has been lost.

First Self-Portrait Photograph

Robert Cornelius' self-portrait in daguerreotype (1839) (via Library of Congress)

Robert Cornelius’ self-portrait in daguerreotype (1839) (via Library of Congress)

The oldest known photographic self-portrait is generally credited as Robert Cornelius‘ daguerreotype (the Library of Congress safely hedges this as “the earliest extant American portrait photo”) made outside his family store back in 1839. For it being such an early time of self-perception on film, he definitely had a good handle on his angles.

First Photographic Hoax

First Hoax Photograph: Hippolyte Bayard (1840)

First Hoax Photograph: Hippolyte Bayard, “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” (1840) (via Juan Carlos M. Rosas/Flickr user)

And just as soon as people were able to take their own photographs, the use of it for staged hoaxes came about, appropriately in response to a scandal among the pioneers of photography. Iconic Photographs has a good write-up of what went down, where Hippolyte Bayard, who had his own innovative ideas about the process of photography, staged a self-portrait of his fake suicide in response to a friend of Louis Daguerre’s convincing him to delay his announcement to the French Academy of Sciences, which of course propelled Daguerre and his daguerreotype to fame. Here he is posed like a drowned man, and on the back he wrote a note asserting that it was his corpse and that the suicide was a direct cause of Daguerre and the Academy. He sent copies of it off to his enemies, and while he may not be the celebrated pioneer that Daguerre is, at least he has this first photographic prank.

Oldest Photograph of a US President

President Adams phtoograph

Photograph of President John Quincy Adams from 1843 (via Smithsonian Institution)

Just as soon as daguerreotypes made it over the Atlantic to the United States, some people were already so over them, or at least President John Quincy Adams didn’t think it was a big deal. As the Atlantic reported, this is the oldest known photograph of a US president (the first is thought to be of William Henry Harrison, although it’s long lost). In his meticulous diary of the day it was taken — on a New York trip in August of 1843 — Adams gave as much attention to “a visit to the dwarf C.F. Stratton, called General Tom Thumb, eleven years old, twenty-five inches high, weighing fifteen pounds, dressed in military uniform mimicking Napoleon” as his stop for four daguerreotype likenesses, “all hideous.” The loathed image was found in an antique store in the 1970s and purchased for just 50 cents, although now it’s in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

As a side-note in presidential photographic firsts, President Obama was actually the first president to have his official portrait taken with a digital camera.

Oldest Aerial Photograph

"Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It," aerial photograph from October 13, 1860 (via Wikimedia)

“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It,” aerial photograph from October 13, 1860 (via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The first photographs to be taken with an aerial view were actually by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, aka Nadar, but despite his intrepid lugging of photographic equipment into the air, his work has been lost. However, the earliest aerial photograph that we know of is this vision of Boston, called “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It“,  taken by James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King from October 13, 1860, showing Boston from 2,066 feet in the air, certainly the first photograph of Boston from above.

First Photograph of People Playing Chess

First photograph of people playing chess with Nicolaas Henneman (1841) (via allposters.com)

First photograph of people playing chess with Nicolaas Henneman (1841) (via allposters.com)

This 1841 giclée by Nicolaas Henneman (who is actually one of the players) may be the first photograph of people playing chess, but it might not have been his last. This photograph of chess players from 1845 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is also attributed to Henneman, although has a decidedly more engaging posing, even breaking the fourth wall, perhaps another photographic first, at least in photographs of gaming.

First Photograph of an Amputation

Photograph of an amputation on April 18, 1847 during the Mexican-American War of Sergeant Antonio Bustos by Belgian surgeon Pedro Vander Linden (who is holding the leg) (via Wikimedia)

Photograph of an amputation on April 18, 1847 during the Mexican-American War of Sergeant Antonio Bustos by Belgian surgeon Pedro Vander Linden (who is holding the leg) (via Wikimedia)

Now, you might not want to look too close if you’re squeamish, but the above is believed to be the first photograph of an amputation. Taken on April 18, 1847 during the Mexican-American War, it shows the unfortunate Sergeant Antonio Bustos with Belgian surgeon Pedro Vander Linden, who is posing proudly with the detached leg in his hand.

First Photograph of Drinking

Edinburgh Ale photograph from 1844, salted paper print from paper calotype negative (via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Edinburgh Ale photograph from 1844, salted paper print from paper calotype negative (via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This is known to be the first photograph of people drinking, perhaps even of people partying. Taken in 1844 by David Octavius Hill, it shows him with writer and artist James Ballantine and commissioner Dr. George William Bell, partaking in three glasses of Edinburgh ale, “a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together, and of which few, therefore, could dispatch more than a bottle.”

First News Photograph

An 1847 daguerreotype believed to be the first news photograph, as well as the first photograph of an arrest (via Three Lions/Getty Images)

An 1847 daguerreotype believed to be the first news photograph, as well as the first photograph of an arrest (via Three Lions/Getty Images)

This 1847 daguerreotype from France is thought to be the first news photograph, as well as the first photograph of an arrest, perhaps also documenting the first gaze of defiance on camera from the accused criminal.

First Photograph to Illustrate a News Story

Daguerreotype of the Barricade in the Rue Saint Maur-Popincourt on June 26, 1848 (via Musée d'Orsay)

Daguerreotype of the Barricade in the Rue Saint Maur-Popincourt on June 26, 1848 (via Musée d’Orsay)

In 1848, the first photograph to be used to illustrate a news story was made. This photograph of the 1848 revolution in Paris, a four-day insurrection in June that left thousands dead in the streets of Paris, was published in the Journées illustrées de la révolution de 1848 and is now in the Musée d’Orsay. Even in the distortion you can make out the barricade on the narrow street.

First Photograph of a Fatal Plane Crash

First photograph of a fatal plane crash from September 17, 1908 (via Wikimedia)

First photograph of a fatal plane crash from September 17, 1908 (via Wikimedia)

Just a few years after the Wright Brothers’ historic December 17, 1903 flight, was the first fatal plane crash, and the incident was captured on camera. Aviator Thomas Selfridge, a member of the Aerial Experiment Association with the US Army, had the unfortunate distinction to become the first person to die in a powered plane. Orville Wright, who was also on board, was injured, but lived.

First Photograph of Lightning

William Jennings' September 2, 1882 photograph of lightning (via the Franklin Institute)

William Jennings’ September 2, 1882 photograph of lightning (via the Franklin Institute)

Curious if lightning really took on a zigzag shape like it was usually depicted in art, William Jennings, a pioneer in the photography of lightning, decided to capture on camera the fury of the weather. Here on September 2, 1882, he succeeded in showing that lightning was actually more visually complicated as it clawed across the stormy sky.

First Photograph of a Tornado

Photograph of an April 26, 1884 tornado near Garnett, Kansas (via Kansas

Photograph of an April 26, 1884 tornado near Garnett, Kansas (via Kansas State Historical Society)

After lightning, another intrepid weather photographer took the first image of a tornado. As Weatherwise reported, the April 26, 1884 photograph taken near Garnett, Kansas, is the first known image of a raging twister.

First Photograph of the Moon

John W. Draper's mirror-reversed daguerreotype of the moon, believed to be taken from his rooftop observatory at NYC on March 26, 1840

This photograph is believed to be John W. Draper’s mirror-reversed daguerreotype of the moon taken from his rooftop observatory at NYC on March 26, 1840 (via Greenwich Village History)

As Greenwich Village History relates, John W. Draper, a colleague of innovator Samuel F. B. Morse at NYU, used the newly arrived daguerreotype process to capture the first known photograph of the moon from a rooftop observatory in Greenwich Village. You can see its form illuminated by the reflected moon rays in the exposure.

First Photograph of the Sun

Daguerreotype of the sun from April 2, 1845 by French physcicist Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault (via National Science Foundation, High Altitude Observatory)

Daguerreotype of the sun from April 2, 1845 by French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault (via National Science Foundation, High Altitude Observatory)

Just shortly after the moon, we have the first photograph of the sun. Taken on April 2, 1845 using 1/60th of a second exposure by French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault, the photograph was just 4.7 inches but as National Geographic reported,  still caught sunspots, visible in photography for the first time.

First Photograph from Space

View of the Earth on October 24, 1946 from a V-2 missile (via White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

View of the Earth on October 24, 1946 from a V-2 missile (via White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

It’s rather astounding that just about a century after we first photographed space, we have the first photograph from space, taken from a V-2 missile. The camera itself on the missile was totally destroyed when it plummeted back to earth at a speed of 500 feet a second, but the film itself survived to show the Earth for the first time from space.

First Photograph in a Hydrogen Atom

The first direct observation of the orbital structure of an excited hydrogen atom, made using a newly developed "quantum microscope."

The first photograph inside a hydrogen atom made with a quantum microscope (via FOM Institute AMOLF)

Leaping ahead, we’re still capturing with photographs things we thought we would never be able to see. Last year we saw the DNA helix for the first time, and earlier this year physicists were able to take a photograph inside a hydrogen atom for the first time, showing the whir of electrons, protons, and neutrons.

First Photograph of the Separation Between Binary Stars

Binary Start Photograph

Resolving the separation between binary stars with the Magellan Telescope (via the University of Arizona)

As we reported earlier this year, new technology call MagAP is now taking the sharpest images of the night sky yet, allowing us to see things previously undetectable, like the separation between binary stars. While photography seems to have permeated media from all angles, with the details of our lives obsessively documented with photography, there are still these landmarks in visualization.

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  • Tom Richardson

    engrossing, unmissable – uncanny sense of immediacy to long ago, long vanished events/cityscapes/people – great album!

  • aliendreams

    Being from Boston I would have loved a current picture alongside the old one to see if anything is still standing!

    • Boosh Woggle

      You should check out the book Boston Then and Now by Patrick L. Kennedy! Very cool stuff.

  • D Jackson

    Exactly my point. This post repeats “the first person captured on film” mistake printed in history books. There are TWO people in the the photo. This website writes that a singular person was captured and reiterates what Retronaut says, which is also incorrect. It’s always been clear that a 2nd person is seated and shining his shoes. Even with vigorous arm movements, the rest of him would have been stationary enough to be captured. You can see him sitting right there, so it’s always been strange to me that people discuss this image as though only one person were captured on film. Does the shoe-shine boy/man not count? That’s my point…that there was no shoe-shine machine!

    • Boosh Woggle

      the shoe shine guy is visible but a blurry mess, so nobody cares. the guy standing is what is astonishing.

  • GeniusPhx

    so that photo of a black and a white man playing chess together before the civil war? neither of them a slave? dont let it out that all whites were not slaughtering black slaves, al sharpton will never hear of it.

    • Charlie

      The first photograph was taken in 1826…here are some factoids for you…both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, on the same day, July 4th…Beethoven was still alive, for he would die the next year, in 1827…the last ruler of the Holy Roman Empire was still alive, and Napoleon had just died, some five years before…amazing…

  • GeniusPhx

    i find it hard to believe that the earliest pics of a president were in 1843. if they were taking pics in 1827 then a lot of our founders were still alive. why wouldnt they take pics of the most imp ppl of our time?

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