Beginnings of Photography
Modern Photography began in the 19th century with Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy’s production of photograms in 1800. In 1826 or 1827, Nicephore Niepce first fixed a crude image captured with a camera. Niepce’s assistant Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process, the first public and commercially feasible method of photography. The daguerreotype process was first introduced to the world in 1839, which is considered to be the start of practical photography. From the 1850s, the collodion process combined the daguerreotype with its glass-based photographic plates. It was used for many decades. Roll films popularized casual and amateur photography. Color photos were introduced in the mid-20th century, leading to the emergence of digital photography and the revolution of smartphone cameras in the 21st century.
The first photographs, especially of people, in black and white thus emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Many of these people went on to become historical figures during their lifetime and their photos were sometimes taken when they weren’t celebrities or important people. Here’s a list of photos of seven such Americans.
President John Quincy Adams
President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth president of the US. Adams was the first president not to have been a founding father of the US. He also was the first son of a president (John Adams) to be elected president and the first to marry a woman born outside the United States. Historians agree that Adams was an average president and that he was far-sighted but underrated as he had an ambitious agenda but could not get it passed by Congress.
Though Adams was not the first sitting president to have his photo taken, he is the earliest president to be photographed. This daguerreotype was taken by a German-born artist Philip Haas at Adams’s Massachusetts home in 1843, long after Adams had left office in 1829, and five years before his death in 1848. However, not much is known about the circumstances of the photo.
President Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was born in a poor family but grew into a successful lawyer, war hero, and finally President of the United States. While he styled himself as a populist, his critics accused him of being a dictator. His treatment of the Native Americans was appalling. He overlooked the seizure of Cherokee land by Georgia which led to the ‘Trail of Tears’, during which thousands of Cherokees died.
This daguerreotype is thought to have been taken by Edward Anthony between 1844 and 1845 and produced by Mathew Brady’s studio. This image is covered with scratches and is believed to be one of the few known photos of President Jackson. It was photographed the year before his death.
President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is among the most celebrated figures in American history. Born into humble beginnings, he educated himself to be a lawyer, entered local and state politics, and served as an Illinois state legislator and US Congressman. He became the President of the US in 1860. Lincoln led the nation during the American Civil War on the issue of slavery, defeated the rebelling states, and ended the practice of slavery by 1865.
According to the US Library of Congress, the above daguerreotype is the earliest-known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken when he was aged 37 in 1846 and was a frontier lawyer in the city of Springfield, Illinois. He had also been elected to the US Congress from Illinois. It is believed that Nicholas H. Shepherd took the photo according to the recollections of Gibson W. Harris, who was a law student in Lincoln’s office from 1845 to 1847. Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, believed the photo was done either in St. Louis or Washington during his father’s time in the Congress. The photo was believed to be taken around the time he first met Joshua Reed Giddings.
American abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) was a violent opponent of slavery in the United States. He is best known for leading an unsuccessful raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 in what is now West Virginia. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.
The portrait was taken by an African-American portraitist, Augustus Washington in his studio in Hartford, Connecticut in 1846 or 1847. It exudes an intensity consistent with Brown’s fanaticism. He appears very angry and determined and raises his right hand as if taking an oath. In the other hand, he is holding a standard thought to be the flag of the Subterranean Pass-Way, his radical alternative to the Underground Railroad. At the time of the image, Brown was not a public figure, but a wool broker.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a mysterious figure who suffered from poor health and probably disabling agoraphobia all through her life. Very few of her poems were published in her lifetime. But she left behind a large body of her work which was later published and she is today regarded as one of America’s most talented poets.
According to Amherst College, this daguerreotype is the only currently verified photograph of Emily Dickinson dating from 1847. It was gifted to the college in 1956 by Millicent Todd Bingham, who received it from Wallace Keep in 1894, who in turn received it from his brother Austin Keep in 1897, who in turn received it from Emily’s sister, Lavinia.
President James K. Polk
James K. Polk (1795-1849) is considered to be the most successful American president since George Washington. According to the Miller Center, President Polk accomplished almost all his goals that he said he wanted to as President, including acquiring Oregon, California, and New Mexico territories, the clearance of a Texas border dispute, lesser tariffs, a new federal depository, and a robust executive division.
In 1849, while in office, James K. Polk was photographed inside the White House by photographer Mathew Brady. The image is widely regarded today as the first presidential photograph. Polk was in a foul temperament during the sitting, having just dispensed with a crowd of office-seekers who had disturbed him all morning. In his diary, he recorded that he had acquiesced to the request of Brady by sitting for his daguerreotype in the large dining room of the White House.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822 but became famous as Harriet Tubman. She was a woman of many parts. Tubman was an escaped slave, a nurse, a Union spy and armed scout in the American Civil War, an advocate for women’s suffrage, and the conductor on the Underground Railroad that transported many slaves from the American South to liberty in the North and Canada.
This photo was taken by Benjamin F. Powelson in Auburn, New York, in either 1868 or 1869. The original, which shows Tubman’s signature at the bottom, was formerly owned by a 19th-century educator and philanthropist, Emily Howland. This photo was previously undocumented and became popular in 2017 showing Tubman in her younger days — slim, impeccably dressed, and confident. The photo was part of an album of images of abolitionists that was given to Emily Howland. The album also contains a much-reproduced photograph of Tubman, showing her standing with hands folded on top of a chair sometime in the 1870s.
These figures lived in the era when photography was rapidly developing as a process in the latter part of the 19th century. Though many of them did get photographed in their lifetime, these pictures didn’t get published as widely in the public domain as today. With the advent of the digital age, these photos have been widely disseminated to the public at large and help get a feel of how the field of photography was during its infancy.