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The 12 Oldest Photographs in History That Captured More Than Meets the Eye

The birth of photography brought a revolutionary shift in how we see and understand the world around us. No longer having to rely solely on text and illustrations, these early photographic images provided a direct visual portal to people, places, and events – capturing slivers of history and preserving them for future generations.

As rudimentary as they seem today with their blurry indistinctness, these primitive photos marked monumental firsts in the chronicles of image-making. Let‘s travel back in time to explore the groundbreaking origins of photography through 12 of the oldest surviving photographic images.

The Pioneering Process Behind the World‘s First Photo

Modern photography has its roots in the early 19th century experiments of inventors like Thomas Wedgwood, Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. They paved the way by developing processes to capture images using light-sensitive chemicals layered on sheets of metal, glass or paper.

However, it was Niépce who created the oldest surviving photo in 1826 using a process he called "heliography" (which means "sun drawing" in Greek). He coated a pewter plate with a petroleum derivative called bitumen of Judea, placed it inside a camera obscura for 8+ hours during which the bright sunlight hardened the bitumen. He then used various solvents to wash away the unhardened areas, uncovering a permanent image where the light struck – thus creating the very first photograph.

Though it simply shows the view from an upstairs window at Niépce‘s estate in Burgundy, France, View from the Window at Le Gras marked a pivotal turn in visual history.

View from the Window at Le Gras

View from the Window at Le Gras by Nicéphore Niépce, 1826

The 8+ hour exposure time meant only stationary elements were captured. The tall posts are believed to be growing peas.

Though blurry and ephemeral, this sole surviving artifact gave rise to modern photography as we know it.

Daguerreotype Process Allowed Faster Exposure Times

Another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, built on Niépce‘s foundations by partnering with him from 1829 and later simplifying and improving the process after Niépce‘s death in 1833. Daguerre discovered that treating the silver coated copper plate with hot mercury vapor produced a visible latent image. This advancement shortened the exposure time to just 15-30 minutes.

The resulting images had finer clarity and detail. Daguerre fittingly called this refined process the "daguerreotype".

Still Life Studio by Louis Daguerre, 1837

Still Life Studio by Louis Daguerre, 1837

Daguerre captured the intricate details of this still life scene inside his studio in 1837.

Though seemingly uneventful by today‘s standards, this simple still life marked tremendous progress – proving the daguerreotype could sharply render fine detail. The shorter exposure broadened photographic possibilities.

First Photo With a Human & the Random Shoe Shiner

Another Daguerre daguerreotype from 1838 memorably holds the distinction of featuring the first human in a photograph.

Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838

This 5 minute exposure only captured two figures – a customer getting his boots polished.

Taken from Daguerre‘s Paris studio window, Boulevard du Temple‘s bustling street seems nearly empty save two lonely figures in the foreground.

But the 5 minute exposure could only capture stationary figures. So this shot eternalized a fleeting moment of a random shoe shiner hard at work – unaware that his mundane labor would make history. Talk about accidentally stumbling into fame!

The Inventor of the World‘s First "Selfie"

An ingenious American photographer named Robert Cornelius took portrait photography in an unprecedented direction in 1839 by taking the world‘s first photographic self-portrait.

By refining Daguerre‘s process to reduce exposures to under a minute, Cornelius was able to sit in front of the camera and click the shutter with a remote trigger to capture himself on a silver coated copper plate.

Self Portrait by Robert Cornelius, 1839

Self Portrait by Robert Cornelius, 1839

Robert Cornelius took the first photographic self portrait using his process refinements for faster exposures.

This hastily improvised self-portrait image earned Cornelius international acclaim. Many consider it to be the world‘s first photographic "selfie". Cornelius later opened one of Philadelphia‘s first photography studios in 1840.

So next time you snap a duck face selfie, spare a thought for the ingenious Mr. Cornelius!

Capturing Ex-President John Quincy Adams in 1843

In early photography, portraiture was largely limited to affluent folks who could afford the equipment and lengthy session times required. One distinguished early portrait subject was John Quincy Adams – the only ex-president to be photographed.

This daguerreotype was captured just 4 years before Adams‘ death by an unknown photographer. As ex-president, long serving Secretary of State, House Representative and leading abolitionist, he led an enormously consequential public life.

John Quincy Adams by Unknown, 1843

John Quincy Adams by Unknown, 1843

Due to the cold, Adams recorded having to pose three times to get this acceptable image.

So having a photographic record of him for posterity would have been invaluable. It offers insights into how this distinguished statesman presented himself visually late in his long career.

Early Photo Manipulation in Lincoln‘s 1846 Portrait

Long before Photoshop allowed easy image manipulation, early photographers still "retouched" portraits using primitive techniques.

One intriguing example is this 1846 daguerreotype of then Congressman Abraham Lincoln by Nicholas H. Shepherd. Shepherd was a law student in Lincoln‘s office who dabbled in photography.

At Lincoln‘s request, Shepherd smoothed out Honest Abe‘s wrinkles and removed a cheek wart to achieve a more flattering, youthful likeness. He accomplished this by manipulating the glass negative before creating the final plate.

Abraham Lincoln by Nicholas Shepherd, 1846

Abraham Lincoln by Nicholas Shepherd, 1846

One of Lincoln‘s earliest portraits, this image was retouched to minimize wrinkles and a facial wart.

So this seemingly straightforward portrait reveals that even the iconic Lincoln wasn‘t immune to vanity! Like celebrities today, he understood the power of cultivating a public image.

Bringing the Brutal Reality of War Into Focus

The advent of photography revolutionized the coverage of war in newspapers. Devastating scenes from the frontlines that once could only be described could now be shown.

Alexander Gardner‘s 1862 photos of Antietam brutally confronted Americans with the harrowing carnage left behind, bringing the horrific reality of war straight into households.

Aftermath of Antietam by Alexander Gardner, 1862

Aftermath of Antietam by Alexander Gardner, 1862

Gardner photographed the battlefield just two days after the pivotal Civil War battle that remains the bloodiest day in American history.

These images deepened public understanding of how appallingly gruesome and consequential the Civil War had become. The New York Times declared Gardner had brought "bodies and ruins into hundreds of thousands of homes where they were but cold, unreal names before."

The $5 Abe: Lincoln‘s Portrait That Still Circulates Today

This stately 1864 image of President Lincoln by Anthony Berger has appeared on the $5 bill since 1929 – making it the most widely reproduced and influential photograph of all time.

Taken in the waning months of the Civil War, this portrait distilled how Lincoln wished to be remembered – calm, dignified, resolved. Just over a year later, he was assassinated.

President Lincoln by Anthony Berger, 1864

President Lincoln by Anthony Berger, 1864

This iconic photograph still appears on every $5 Federal Reserve Note over 150 years later.

Selected from among 50 poses, it fueled Lincoln‘s elevation to secular American sainthood. Painter-turned-photographer Anthony Berger captured Honest Abe‘s greatness for eternity in this single image.

So next time you casually plunk down that fiver to pick up coffee, pause to admire its exulted photographic pedigree!

Early Photo Processes Required Great Effort & Expertise

What links all these seminal images together across the decades is the laborious process and technical skill required for production in early photography‘s infancy.

Whether coating metal plates by hand with light sensitive substances or carefully buffing daguerreotype images from silver surfaces, these photographic pioneers overcame substantial chemical and optical challenges to capture scenes with clarity.

Progress was painfully incremental. But their tireless experiments with various methodologies and equipment laid the bedrock that later innovations built upon. We owe an huge debt to their trailblazing persistence.

As a result of their collective breakthroughs, photography evolved from a complex craft restricted to elites to a ubiquitous, instantaneous fixture of modern life accessible to all.

Frequently Asked Questions

How did they preserve early photos so well?

Many of those creating early photographs quickly understood their significance and preserved them very carefully to stand the test of time. They archived them in optimal dark, dry conditions. Museums and institutions later acquired and maintained them.

How long did it take to produce the first photos?

The heliography method that created the first photo took over 8 hours. The later daguerreotype process shortened the exposure time to around 15-30 minutes.

Why are there only two figures visible in the Boulevard du Temple street scene?

The 5+ minute exposure could only capture stationary figures. Moving people and horses did not have enough time to imprint on the plate.

What made Lincoln‘s portrait so influential?

Beyond honoring a revered president, Berger‘s eloquent portrait visually cemented Lincoln‘s reputation as a moral leader stewarded the nation through crisis. Its dignity and gravitas inspired hope.


What may look to modern eyes like blurry, banal snaps of buildings, sitters and even shoe shiners were visionary leaps ahead in the early days of photography. We can admire these photographic firsts that paved the way for the richer visual chronicles to come. They made the old adage "a picture tells a thousand words" a reality.

Next time you effortlessly snap a pic on your phone, take a moment to appreciate the countless experiments and refinements by photography‘s pioneers that allow you to instantly capture and share moments in your life. Their creative persistence over nearly 50 pioneering yearsgift wrapped visual communication possibilities we now take for granted each day.

So let‘s give credit where credit‘s due by honoring these 12 images as the seminal artifacts that shepherded image-making from precarious chemical craft to the ubiquitous modern miracle it is today!