Great Photographs No. 1


This astonishing image has to rank amongst the 100 greatest photographs of all time …

It is a daguerrotype, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (after whom the process was named), an image recorded on a sheet of copper coated with silver and developed by mercury fumes. Ironically the hour at which it was taken is known, but the year is not. It was either 1838 or 1839.

At first glance this may seem like a rather ordinary … even boring … subject. And it’s badly scratched too. Aren’t I saying its so great, simply because its so old?


Look carefully to the bottom left. (You can click on the image to see it full-size.) There you will see two human figures, a customer having his shoes polished by a bootblack. These two unknown characters were the first humans to be photographed. Their simple, everyday transaction has made them immortal.

How come there is no one else in the image? Weren’t the streets of Paris busy at that time?

They were. But Daguerre would have had to use an exposure of 10-15 minutes to get this image. So all the other Parisians, bustling back and forth, have not have been recorded. Such was the length of exposure that anything in the frame for less that a few minutes would not register.

All the commentaries on this photograph that I have read speculate that these two were probably unaware that they were being recorded. And they say that Daguerre knew neither of them. One photo-historian writes, “He (Daguerre) quite possibly didn’t notice them as he focused his camera, but his plate remained true to nature, and one can imagine his delight when the mercury fumes revealed their presence during development.”

I wonder if that could be true.

Daguerre would have known that people moving about would not record on his plate and I have a sneaking suspicion he planted these two. Apart from anything else, who has one shoe polished for 10 to 15 minutes? Then it’s a slightly odd place for a bootblack to set up business, right on a corner, close to the kerb, and directly in the path of people walking up and down the road.

Finally, these two are very conveniently placed close to the classic compositional ‘thirds’ position.

I think that it has been set up … not that this detracts from the image in any way. Those two make the picture. I’m guessing that Daguerre knew a thing or two about composition as well as developing plates with mercury fumes. He knew that a ‘heartbeat’ would improve his image. But he couldn’t just have a person or two standing motionless on the street corner. Apart from the fact that it would look odd to passers-by, it would also look odd on the image. So, get them to do something, and what more natural than a shoe shine?

In a further bizarre twist of fate, we can still see and appreciate this image because of an invention of Daguerre’s great rival, William Henry Fox Talbot. Fox Talbot invented the calotype which was the precursor of modern film photography. (Film photography replaced the daguerrotype process and made it obsolete.)

Whilst this daguerrotype was display in a museum in Munich, in 1937, an eminent photo-historian, Beaumont Newhall commissioned a very high-quality photograph of it … using photographic film of course (i.e. based on Fox Talbot’s invention).

Subsequently, Daguerre’s picture survived the bombings of Munich in 1940 but, shortly after the war, an over-zealous museum curator attempted to clean it. The mercury amalgamated to the silver was incredibly fragile – likened to the powdery scales on a butterfly’s wings – and the hapless curator wiped the whole thing clean.

But Beaumont Newhall’s photograph of it survived. And a replica daguerrotype could be made.

An amazing story around a truly great photograph.