Photographic History

There is one particular daguerreotype that has always fascinated me. It was taken by Louis Daguerre himself, and is the very first photograph known to show a human being! This photo was taken in 1838. 1838!! That’s 173 years old!! Think about how amazing that is: a photograph taken a mere fifty-five years after the American Revolution and less than forty years after the French Revolution, twenty-three years after the Battle of Waterloo and twenty-three years before the start of the American Civil War; like I said, amazing.


Just thinking about a photo taken 173 years ago boggles my mind. It gives us an incredible opportunity to gaze into the past. This very street in Paris was the home of what would eventually morph into Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, at the time known as the Salon de Cire, where the leaders of the Revolution in France brought the heads of those they guillotined for Marie Grosholtz (later Tussaud) to cast in wax; wax being ever so much better to parade around on a pike, you know.

Have another look at the original daguerreotype, above. Over to the left, beside the cobblestone street, on the sidewalk next to the large building in the foreground, do you see him? It looks like he may be standing next to a water pump, perhaps, or that’s what the handle at the top puts me in mind of. He looks like he might be wearing a tricorn hat, although if he was, he was terribly out of fashion, the tricorn being rather passé since around 1800. If you look closely, the hat may just as easily be any other fashionable hat of the era and the dark smudge at the top, which we could perceive as the tricorn shape, may actually just be a…smudge. Regardless, he appears to be wearing a long coat, perhaps to his knees, perhaps a bit shorter, and is standing with one leg up, his foot braced on something, and there may be the arm of another person in front of his knee (or that could be another smudge…I’m just sayin…)…the whole position puts one in mind of a gentleman having his boots shined. All I can say is that shining a nice pair of Hessians (assuming, of course, that they were, indeed, hessians) must have taken some time! Why would I say that? Well, look at the street in the photograph. It appears that a Paris street, in the middle of the day, is completely empty, save some guy having his boots shined, right? Wrong. Chances are the street is teaming with life! The Boulevard de Temple was a street of fun and entertainment, full of Café’s, theaters and museums, such as the Salon de Cire. There would have been carriages, people strolling, perhaps merchants and entertainers out on the sidewalk trying to draw the crowds into their establishments. So why can we see a gentleman having a shine and no one else? Because Daguerre’s incredibly precise photographs took a mind-numbing ten minutes to process at that time! Anything that moved during that time would be rendered invisible, hence my comment on how long it must have taken to shine a boot!

Daguerreotypes were, and are, some of the best, clearest, highest resolution images ever made, but since they were on highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper, most of the damage is from scratching. Digitally restoring them is an exercise in patience, and care must be taken not to smudge the photo by trying to fix too much of a scratched area at once. The key to fixing large scratches is to take each scratch in little pieces instead of long sweeps.

The photographic process of the time was done in mirror image. Most of the examples of Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple on the webs today are shown in the orientation shown at the top of this article. Since I didn’t know if photo had been reversed before it was uploaded, or if it was still in the reversed orientation, I wanted to see if I could tell by the writing on the side of the tall building on the left which way the scene would be if we were there, with Daguerre, looking down on the Boulevard de Temple. I was able to only make out a few numbers, 104, and one word, Rue (see below), but it was enough to tell that the photo was, indeed, mirror image, so I flipped the orientation.

I then added a bit of duotone to soften the harshness of the black and white image. I almost consider this less of a restoration and more of a glass cleaning, leaving this window that Louis Daguerre left us a bit clearer. I hope you’ve enjoy this little peek into the past!

While this photo is in the public domain, the restoration is not, and has been watermarked. Please don't use it without my permission! Thanks! 🙂






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