“Selfies of yesteryear”: The earliest photographs of a man and a woman

Schematic drawings of human beings can be seen in cave paintings dating back 30,000 years. But the first photographs of a man and a woman are a mere 175 years old.

Cornelius-1839Robert Cornelius – lamp maker, chemist, metallurgist, scientist, businessman and ventriloquist – was also an early experimenter in photography. He made a self-portrait in October or November 1839. On the back is written “The first light picture ever taken”. It is the first photographic portrait of a human ever produced.

Born to Dutch immigrants, Robert Cornelius attended private school as a youth, taking a particular interest in chemistry. In 1831, he began working for his father and specialized in silver plating and metal polishing. He became so well known for his work that he was approached by the American inventor Joseph Saxton to create a silver plate for his daguerreotype of Central High School in Philadelphia. It was this meeting that sparked Cornelius’s interest in photography.

With his knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, as well as the help of chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Cornelius attempted to perfect the daguerreotype. In 1839 Cornelius took his portrait photo in the back of his father’s gas lamp importing business in Philadelphia by taking off the lens cap, sprinting to his seat and remaining motionless for over a minute before covering the lens.

Cornelius would later operate two of the earliest photographic studios in the US, between 1841 and 1843 but, as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, he either lost interest or realised that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company.

Draper-1839At almost the same time, the American (English-born) scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer John William Draper had become equally fascinated by the potential of the new medium. He is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face (1839–40) and the first detailed photograph of the Moon (1840). He was also the first president of the American Chemical Society (1876-77) and a founder of the New York University School of Medicine.

Draper’s photo is of his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, who had her face powdered with flour in an early attempt to accentuate contrasts. From these first images to the “selfies” of today is a technological leap of the kind that transforms the world. Where we go next is almost unpredictable.


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