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When was the First Photograph Taken?

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By Christian Roemer

Sometimes, you’ll hear a question that seems pretty straightforward on the surface, but the actual answer is a little bit more complicated. I love questions like that. First, they’re perfect for me because I love learning interesting facts. Second, even though I’m terrible at trivia, I like trivia. Thirdly--and most importantly--those kinds of answers are often a bit pedantic, and there’s nothing that I love more than being a bit pedantic.

This happens to be one of those questions: when was the first photograph taken?
On the surface, it seems like the answer should be pretty straightforward. There had to be a first time that someone made a camera, pointed it at something, and developed a picture. How complicated could it be? Well, I get to say one of my favorite things.

 

It depends.


The reason that it’s a little bit more quirky than a quick and dirty answer is because we have to think about what a photograph actually is. Is it when film is developed? Or is it something else? Is a photograph when focused light shines on a surface of something that causes a reaction on its surface, leaving behind an image of the focused light?


Not so simple, is it?


If we take the more abstract view of what an image is, we have to consider a thing called camera obscura. Camera obscura is when light shines through a pinhole and leaves a projection on a different surface. One example, if you’ve experienced this, is when there’s a solar eclipse. If you look at sunlight that shines through trees, the sun actually shows up as a little crescent. Here’s a picture that I took of solar eclipse camera obscura a couple of years ago. A cool fact about this phenomenon is that there’s evidence that it created a “photograph” way back in the 1300s by shining focused light on some fabric that changed color where it was exposed to light. That’s called the Turin Shroud, and if we’re taking a loose definition of what a photograph is, that piece of linen is the first one we know of. 


If you think the Turin Shroud is cheating, the answer is still a little bit tricky. Is the first photograph the shadowy thing that Jaques Charles created back in the early 1800s? No evidence survives that the “photograph” actually exists as he described it. The things that actually look like the first photos are called Daguerreotypes from the early 1830s. But then those required long, long exposure processes and large heavy equipment.

 

If a photograph is when we point a camera at something and capture the image on film that then needs to be developed, those were invented in the mid 1800s by a guy named George Eastman. His invention was called the Kodak camera.

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