The first candid photograph of a person was taken in 1838.

  • Boulevard du Temple, 1838
Boulevard du Temple, 1838
Credit: Science History Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

Before the 19th century, photography did not exist, so people who wanted a lasting image of their home, their family, or themselves had to have one painted, sculpted, or drawn. In the early 1800s, inventors in France and England were at the center of the effort to create photographic representations of objects and people. In France, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce stunned the world in 1827 when he released what is believed to be the first photograph ever taken, titled “View from the Window at Le Gras.” Niépce rendered the image using a camera obscura combined with a light-sensitive metal plate, a process he called heliography. Despite its success, the heliograph required several days of exposure to capture the scene, eliminating the opportunity to photograph any people who may have been on the street.

In 1829, Niépce met artist and printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Each man was familiar with the other’s work. Niépce admired Daguerre’s rotating diorama that had captivated Parisian audiences in 1822. Daguerre, like Niépce, saw the potential of improving upon the camera obscura to create clear and permanent images. They entered into a business partnership that resulted in the creation of the daguerreotype, an innovative photographic process that required only four to five minutes of exposure. 

The quicker shutter speed allowed Daguerre’s camera to capture an image never seen before: a photo of a human being. In 1838, he debuted a daguerreotype of a street scene on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In the lower left corner of the photo we can see a man having his shoes shined; remaining stationary allowed him to be included in the photo, something that would have been impossible using the multiple-day exposure that heliographs required. This anonymous stranger on Boulevard du Temple was not simply the subject of the world’s first candid photograph — he’s also believed to be the first human being ever photographed.

You may also like