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The First Photograph of a Human

By Brian | October 28, 2010 | Share on Facebook

Megan McArdle just pointed me to this picture, which purports to be the first picture ever taken of a human being:

According to the blog post it came from, the picture was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838. Louis Daguerre invented a process called Daguerreotype, which creates an image by exposing a chemically treated metal plate to light for ten minutes.

What’s really interesting about this picture (to me, anyway) is that the street was very crowded and busy when the picture was taken. But all of the people, horse-drawn carriages, etc. were moving, so they didn’t make any impression on the metal plate. Only the one gentleman, who appears to be having his boots shined, stood still enough for long enough to be captured. Everyone else around him was, unknowingly, a ghost – disappearing in the final daguerreotype. But this guy’s image was preserved forever – the first human being ever caught on film.

And, because the Internet can sometimes be as awesome as a daguerrotype from 1838, here is an image lifted from Google maps, showing the same street corner today (lifted from the same blog post:

(Click on either image above to enlarge it)

Topics: Random Acts of Blogging | 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “The First Photograph of a Human”

  1. jason says at November 1st, 2010 at 7:56 pm :
    I saw this story somewhere last week… fascinating stuff. Have you seen the follow-up, wherein someone colorized the image and claims to have uncovered other possible humans? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130898617&sc=fb&cc=fp

  2. Brian says at November 2nd, 2010 at 11:26 am :
    I had not seen that. Thanks, Jason. Very cool…

  3. jason says at November 3rd, 2010 at 1:27 pm :
    My pleasure! :)

  4. Jeff Porten says at November 11th, 2010 at 2:26 pm :
    What strikes me as very cool about this picture: you’d think that the pedestrians, at least, would have left streaks on the picture. I find it fascinating that they’re entirely vanished — but there’s no blurring from when the guy getting his boots shined changed feet.

    IIRC, bootblacks were one of the ways that clandestine messages were passed around among spy networks, so it’s actually possible that this picture is of a French spy — given the usual amount of time it takes to shine a shoe, and inferring from walking speeds elsewhere that didn’t show, I think you’d have to come up with an explanation why the guy was motionless for so long.

  5. Brian says at November 11th, 2010 at 6:20 pm :
    I don’t know enough about Daguerrotype to respond. You’re assuming that a moving object would leave a streak (like the photography process, where the moving object changes the amount of light exposed to the film while the shutter is open). I don’t know if that’s true with this process.

    Also: there are lots of shadows on the sidewalks & street. For all we know, some of those shadows are people blending into the actual shadows as part of the Daguerrotype process.

  6. Jeff Porten says at November 11th, 2010 at 7:36 pm :
    Daguerrotypes are similar to photography so far as the light sensitive part — but they need much more exposure time. I’m more familiar with the glass substrates they were using by the Civil War; they couldn’t get battle shots due to all the movement, but after the fact was no problem. AFAIK, movement should cause a streak on all of them, simply because it’ll affect the average amount of light hitting the sensitive areas over the exposure time.

    But I didn’t look at the shadows closely enough to figure out where they came from, so sure, what I think isn’t there could just be blended.

  7. jason says at November 13th, 2010 at 3:36 pm :
    I don’t know much about Daguerrotypes, but I do know that extremely long exposures in modern photography will cause moving objects to disappear. You see the kind of streaking Jeff is talking about at long-but-not-that-long shutter speeds, but at longer speeds you end up with a seemingly empty landscape. I think what happens is that the length of exposure is enough longer than the time it takes something to move through the frame that it skews the average light value entering the camera.

    Not that this helps much with the question of why that guy stood with the bootblack for long enough to be captured… I’ve never heard the about the bootblack/spy connection, so maybe…


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