Photographs are an amazing thing. We now take them for granted, but have you ever stopped to think about how incredible they truly are? They manage to freeze one moment in time forevermore, a peek at a split second in time that we can never get back, but which remains eternally etched upon that picture as if it never left. We have come a long way since the first attempts to capture images on film, and it is weird to think that less than 200 hundred years ago the thought of taking a picture of any kind was magic. How many scenes and images over human history have been lost to die with those who last saw them, before we had the capability of preserving them for all to see? Vast swaths of history have been visually lost to us, from a time before cameras and Instagram. Looking at old photographs can be a surreal experience, a step through time to another era, and here we will take a look at some major pioneering firsts in the world of pictures, a peek through the ages to another era.
When it comes to fascinating photographs of the past, perhaps it is best to start at the very beginning, with the first one ever taken, or at least the oldest surviving one. This particular picture was taken in around 1826, by inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a special, revolutionary method (for the time) that involved a pewter plate covered in an asphalt derivative. The process is though to have taken several days of exposure, and the result is a view out of a window at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, in a time long forgotten but forever preserved in this image.
Moving on to other early firsts, we have the 1838 photograph taken by Louis Daguerre at the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, France, at a place called the Place de la République, in what is thought to be the first photo ever taken of a human being. At the time, the process required at least 10 minutes of exposure to take a picture, meaning that human beings did not show up, and this was just a regular landscape photo for quite a long time until someone noticed that a human figure can be seen in the bottom left. It is believed that the unidentified man had been standing still for long enough to show up because he had been having his shoes shined. There is another blurry figure of a person that can be seen as well, although not nearly as clearly. Daguerre was actually the inventor of the device he used to take it, called a “daguerreotype,” which utilized silver plates and mercury fumes, and was used to take many of the earliest photos.
From the following year, in 1839 we have what is considered to be the world’s first selfie, taken by a student in Pennsylvania named Robert Cornelius, who would also be instrumental in further refining and developing the daguerreotype. He tested it out by taking a photo of himself as he stood in front of a store front in Philadelphia, standing completely still for an estimated 10 to 15 minutes to capture this historic shot.
Speaking of firsts, there is also the first photograph ever taken of a woman, a portrait taken by a Dr. John W. Draper of his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, at his New York studio in 1840. The photo looks like a pretty normal old-timey pic, but it is important to note that the subject had to keep completely still without even blinking for over a minute to achieve this.
The oldest surviving photograph of a president was taken by daguerreotype in 1843, and shows the then former president John Quincy Adams approximately 14 years after his presidency had ended. The photograph was taken by Philip Hass, and although Adams was no longer in office at the time it is remarkable nonetheless.
The year 1845 saw more breakthroughs in photography when the French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault managed to take the first ever photos of the sun. It is interesting to note that just 5 years before these same men had also been the first to take a photograph of the moon, from a rooftop observatory in New York. Also note that sunspots can even be observed in this photograph.
Another unique daguerreotype photograph is what is believed to be the first photo ever taken of New York City. The picture in question was taken in 1848 at Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and you can see that at the time it wasn’t nearly the big bustling metropolis we see today. There was another even older picture of New York, but it has been lost over the years, and so this is effectively the oldest.
There is also a very intriguing image taken in 1853 by a man named Solomon Nunes Carvalho at Big Timbers, Colorado. This photo would become part of the U.S. Library of Congress, and is thought to be the very first photograph taken of a Native American village. Most people only have the image of these places in their heads from Western movies and Cowboys and Indians shows, so to take a glimpse through time in this photo is fascinating to say the least, with even two Native American figures visible in the center left.
Just less than a decade after this photo first, in 1860 there was taken the first aerial photo ever. Although we now take such pictures for granted, at the time it was unheard of, but James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King managed to capture this image from 2,000 feet in the air, which shows Boston, Massachusetts at the time. There were earlier photos taken from hot air balloons, but they were lost and this is the earliest surviving one.
The very next year, in 1861, the first ever color photograph would be taken, by photographer Thomas Sutton. The technique used was first proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, and he was the first to suggest that three light sources could be mixed and matched to achieve any desired color. Sutton used Maxwell’s advice and took three different black and white photos of a ribbon and used blue, red, and green filters on each one, after which he merged them into one image to create the first known color photograph, a truly revolutionary concept at the time.
At the start of the following decade, in 1870 another photographic milestone was reached when photographer Carol Popp de Szathmari took what is regarded as the very first photograph taken of a battle. The picture shows Prussian troops advancing against French defenders, and it is largely due to images like this that Szathmari is widely said to be the first war photographer.
The ensuing decades would bring some other photographic firsts, when in April of 1884 the first photo of a tornado was taken by an A.A. Adams in Garnett, Texas. Adams was lucky enough to be present or the tornado and to find a comfortable vantage point from around 14 miles away, standing by the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett where he went about capturing this historic and unique image.
Finally we come to a whole new avenue of photography in the early years, that of underwater photography. This had long been seen as virtually impossible, but in 1926 National Geographic photographer Charles Martin, along with botanist William Longley, were in the Florida Keys trying out their new fancy equipment utilizing waterproof housing and a magnesium flash, when they managed to snap this pic of a hogfish off the Florida Keys. It may seem rather quaint in modern times, but this had never been done before, and stands as a testament to human ingenuity and remains a rather dramatic photographic first.
While we now take and share photographs instantaneously at a moment’s notice, it seems that we should sometimes take a step back and look at where it all began, to the time when this was extremely cutting edge science fiction stuff. Looking at these photos we are brought to another era in history, frozen there for all time. Even as we move into the future and the world changes, these moments will not, frozen there on film forevermore, and earning their place in history.