Tag Archives: early photography

First Photograph of a U.S. Presidential Inauguration

The first photograph of a U.S. presidential inauguration was taken by John Wood on March 4, 1857, when James Buchanan assumed the presidency.  Wood was the first presidential photographer who also documented the construction of the U.S. Capitol from 1856 to 1861.

Wood used the newly-discovered wet-plate collodion method invented by British photographer Frederick Scott Archer.  The process involved coating a glass plate with a mixture of a soluble iodide and a collodion solution.  Although complex and requiring a portable darkroom, the collodion method produced sharper images without lengthy exposure times that also could be more easily duplicated than the then well-used daguerreotype technique.

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First Known Photographs of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is one of the oldest and most continually-occupied cities in the world. It has a rich history, and it’s disgraceful that it has remain mired in the ongoing battle between religious and political factions that occupy the region. Still, it holds a special place in the collective hearts of the faithful.

Earlier this year the Smithsonian Institution released what are believed to be the first photographs ever taken of the city. They date to 1844 and were taken by French photographer Joseph Girault de Prangney. De Prangney was a pioneer in the field of daguerreotypes, but he’s not well known among aficionados of art and photography. He studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and learned about daguerreotypes in 1841, the same year inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre publicly demonstrated the process. It’s unclear if de Prangney studied daguerreotypes directly under Daguerre or one of the latter’s associates. But, he developed a fascination with the new art form and meshed it with his interest in the Middle East. In 1842, he embarked on a three-year tour of Italy Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. He carried hundreds of pounds of photography equipment and produced more than 800 daguerreotypes. If you understand how cumbersome photography equipment of the day was and how long it took to make just one daguerreotype, then you’ll truly appreciate his dedication.







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Gustave Le Gray’s “Seascape”

“Seascape”, Normandy, France, by Gustave le Gray_1856

Every technological innovation boasts its gallery of pioneers; people who view the new item with wonder and see its potential.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but less than 200 years ago, photography was one such invention.  Like television sets and personal computers in the 20th century, photography in the 19th century was a medium that had few proponents and even fewer fans.  But, Gustave Le Gray was among the handful of practitioners who put photography to good use.

Born near Paris, France in 1820, Le Gray became known for his photographs of landscapes and the sky.  In 1856, he made this picture of the seashore at Normandy, France and simply called it “Seascape.”  I emphasize “made” because no one really took photographs back then.  The process was slow and arduous; the camera’s aperture had to attract enough light to burnish an image onto a glass plate.  It took several minutes, which explains why the subjects of early portraits never smiled.

Le Gray, however, often used two negatives to capture the expanse of the scenery.  He placed the negative directly on top of the photographic paper and printed in sunlight.  The prints were then toned in a solution of gold chloride in hydrochloric acid.  This resulted in a violet-purple color, with helped to stabilize the images and prevent them from fading over time.  The two-negative combination allowed Le Gray to achieve a tonal balance between the sea and the sky when the picture was printed.  The sunlight’s shimmer on the water made viewers initially think they were looking at a moonlit shoreline.  For many people the result was breathtaking and almost spiritual.

Upon seeing one of Le Gray’s seascape photographs in 1857, a critic for the “Journal of the Photographic Society” wrote:

“From the midst of this ‘pother’ of dimness falls a gush of liquid light, full and flush on the sea, where it leaves a glow of glory…It is as when Jacob’s ladder of angels was just withdrawn, and the radiance above and below, where it rested on earth and sky, had not yet melted out.”

Le Gray seemed to comprehend the practical applications of photography, when he wrote in 1856, “Since its first discovery, photography has made rapid progress, especially as regards the instruments employed in its practice.  It now remains for the artist to raise it to its proper position among the fine arts.”

Le Gray composed a set of photographs of the Normandy coast in the summer of 1856 and another set along the Mediterranean the following spring.  They were exhibited first in London and then in Paris shortly afterwards.  Le Gray quickly became a sensation.  Unfortunately, his success didn’t last long, and he was bankrupt by 1860.  He died in Egypt 1882.

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Boston from the Air


Boston, Massachusetts has been in the news a great deal recently; unfortunately because of the marathon bombings one week ago.  But, Boston – one of America’s greatest cities, and the birth place of the American Revolution – has the distinction of being the first metropolitan area known to have been photographed from the air.

The first flight of an untethered balloon took place over Paris in 1783, and the first known photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.  In 1858, another Frenchman, Gaspard Felix Tournachon, merged the two technologies to take a picture of Paris from aloft.  Unfortunately, that photograph has been lost.

But, in 1860, photographer James Black managed to capture a shot of Boston from about 2,000 feet above the city.  This was a major achievement, considering photography was still very much in its infancy and subjects had to remain steady while their images were embedded in the glass plates.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and professor of medicine at Harvard at the time, gave the photo its title, “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It,” in a July 1863 article in the Atlantic Monthly.

“Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South [Church] and Trinity Church [left center and lower right] are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street [bottom] slants across the picture as a narrow cleft.  Milk Street [left center] winds as if the old cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its commercial palaces.  Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers…. As a first attempt [at aerial photography] it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.”
The photograph is now in the possession of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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Officials Seek Answers About Photos of Little Girls Found on Civil War Battlefield

Among all the personal effects that could survive a skirmish during the Civil War, a couple of tiny photographs seem unlikely candidates.  But, that’s exactly what turned up amidst the carnage of the deadliest conflict in United States history.  One picture of a young girl was found between the bodies of two soldiers following a battle in Port Royal, Virginia in June of 1862.  The other photograph – also of a young girl – was located in a Virginia farm field in 1865, just before the war came to an end.

Photography was still in its infancy in the 1860’s, but it had become a rather common means of recording the events of people’s lives.  Many Union and Confederate soldiers carried photos of loved ones into battle.  Photographers were assigned to Northern divisions and traveling photographers were the early version of photo booths as they visited encamped troops between battles and photographed them.

Photography was evolving from daguerreotype to ambrotypes and other mediums in which images were produced through a wet emulsion on glass and were more accessible to a wider audience.

Now, the Museum of the Confederacy hopes to identify the girls in these two particular photographs.  They admit their chances are remote.  There is no writing on the backs of these photographs, nor were there any notes tucked inside their small frames.

“We don’t know who they are and the people who picked them up did not know who they were,” said Ann Drury Wellford, curator of 6,000 Civil War images at the Richmond museum that has the largest collection of artifacts of the Confederate states, both civilian and military.  “They evoke an utter and complete sentimentality.”

Each photograph is in a hinged case with a leather or composite exterior.  The cases protected the fragile images, which include early photographic processes such as tintypes and daguerreotypes.

Regardless of how one feels about the Civil War, these photographs – and the countless others collected by the Museum – speak of an intimacy among families and a sense of humanity that only comes to light after people see the horrors of a battlefield.

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