Created in 1838 by inventor Louis Daguerre, this is thought to be the first ‘photograph’ of a person. The image shows a street scene from the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In the bottom left hand corner, is a small figure – a man having his shoes shined.
British experimenters had tried in the 1790s to fix an image onto silver nitrate, but these proved too faint. In 1826/7, French inventor Joseph Niépce (1765 – 1833) produced the world’s first camera ‘photo’, capturing a view from his window using a camera obscura (a pinhole projection of an image) and a pewter plate, thinly coated with bitumen. Two years later, Louis Daguerre (1787 – 1851), a celebrated French theatre designer, joined Niépce in his experiments. He developed a new type of ‘photograph’ which he called the ‘daguerreotype’, going public with his invention in 1839.
A daguerreotype is created using a copper plate with a highly polished silver surface, which has been sensitised to light (by treating it with iodine fumes). The plate is exposed in a camera and the image developed using mercury vapour. The process produced sharp results that were a mirror image of the subject. It became the first commercial photographic process and was used in countries around the world for the next 20 years.
This daguerreotype, made by Daguerre himself, is of a busy road in Paris. Due to the long exposure time needed, anything moving in that time, such as people or vehicles were not in one place long enough to make an impression. The man in the lower left-hand corner was captured because he was standing still while he had his shoes shined. Apparently, there are a few other figures in the image. Can you spot them?
Did you know..?
Daguerre is one of the 72 names inscribed on the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris, in recognition of contributions to science.
View a Daguerrotype of Duke of Wellington in our Revolutionary Collection here, created by Antoine Claudet, court photographer to Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III and a pupil of Daguerre.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.