Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The First Photographic Portrait Image of a Human Ever Produced (1839)

Robert Cornelius (1809–1893) was the son of Christian Cornelius, a Dutch immigrant to Philadelphia in 1783. A well-to-do manufacturer of lamps and chandeliers, the elder Cornelius sent his son to private school where he took a special interest in chemistry. In 1831, he began to work for his father and specialized in silver-plating and metal polishing, a skill for which he was so sufficiently well-renowned, that in 1844, the newly-created Smithsonian Institute entrusted some of its early experiments to him. It was natural, then, for Joseph Saxton to approach Cornelius for the silver plate required for his daguerreotype of Central High School, and equally natural for Cornelius himself to become interested in the procedure.

With his own knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, as well as the help of chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Cornelius attempted to perfect the daguerreotype. Around October 1839, Cornelius took a portrait of himself outside of the family store. In our digital age, self-portraits are literally taken a million times every day. But Robert Cornelius had to stare motionless for over five minutes when he took his own picture. The daguerreotype produced shows an off center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair. This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is one of the first photographs of a human to be produced.

An early self-portrait of inventor and businessman Robert Cornelius, taken in 1839. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Shortly before he died in 1893, Cornelius told Julius Sachse, a Philadelphia photographer and future editor the American Journal of Photography, that he had taken portraits as early as October, 1839. No corroborating evidence was found until 1975, when Murphy D. Smith, librarian at the American Philosophical Society, found a photograph of Goddard dated on the back December 6, 1839, the date Cornelius and Goddard introduced their invention to the Society.

(via Wikipedia and PA History)

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