Old photos trace our ancestry, precious memories, and most important moments of our lives like graduations, weddings, holidays, and other celebrations. They also trace human history with famous photos of the last 2 centuries capturing some of the most significant events.
Capture has been dedicated to preserving personal and cultural histories for over 20 years, which is why we put together this glimpse into the 20 oldest photographs that not only detail the history of photography, but also demonstrate the progress of mankind.
Keep reading to learn about the pioneers and innovators of photography and 20 of the earliest photographs including “View from the Window at Le Gras” from 1826, “Boulevard du Temple” from 1838, and “The Great Gatsby” from 1907.
- Pioneers and Innovators in Photography
- The 20 Oldest Photographs Ever Taken
- The Historical and Cultural Significance
- Challenges of Preservation and Restoration
Pioneers and Innovators in Photography
The evolution of the camera leading to the oldest photograph still in existence begins with the portable Camera Obscura invented by Johann Zahn in 1685, but it wasn’t until Joseph Nicephore Niepce figured out how to manipulate it to expose pewter plates coated with bitumen of Judea that photography really took off.
Niepce is now credited with the world’s oldest known surviving photograph, but he’s also profoundly influential in the progress of the camera itself. In fact, without his invention we wouldn’t have been able to progress so rapidly to the invention of video cameras!
A few years after Niepce’s invention, Henry Fox Talbot discovered how to fix images to paper using optics and chemistry, which made it possible to create multiple print negatives for the first time in 1834. Other techniques and inventions that paved the way for the ancient snapshots and vintage photos below include the daguerreotype process and the development of celluloid emulsion film by Eastman Kodak in 1888.
But before celluloid film, photography started to become more creative leading to the development of the earliest staged photograph, possibly created in 1840, in which French photography pioneer Hippolyte Bayard pretends to commit suicide. He also invented a process that produced direct positive paper prints in the camera that influenced slide film, another positive film format that was developed much later.
These few inventions laid the foundation for the future of photography that eventually led to the first digital camera nearly 150 years later and captured not only the first photo, but many of the earliest known photographs still in existence.
The 20 Oldest Photographs Ever Taken
These are 20 of the oldest photographs and historic pictures that are not only incredibly influential to the development of photography and spread of new media formats but are also historical moments in the history of the human race. Included are not only the oldest photographs, but also some of the oldest of different types like astronomical, tourism, war, color, and aerial photography.
"View from the Window at Le Gras" (1826) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Taken in 1826, this is widely considered to be the world’s oldest photograph that’s still in existence and was captured using a technique called heliography that produced images on metal plates. This photographic process uses bitumen, asphalt, and pewter to record light for at least 8 hours, but possibly as long as two days. When the bitumen hardened due to the light, it created the heliographic image you see here.
The oldest surviving photograph portrays buildings and tree lines and while it might not look impressive today due to our experience with modern film rolls and digital images, it was the beginning of a long line of photographic advancements.
"Boulevard du Temple" (1838) by Louis Daguerre
This picture of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, France is significant because it’s the first photograph of a human being. Additionally, unlike “View from the Window at Le Gras,” Louis Daguerre had developed a method that reduced the exposure time to only 4-5 minutes. It depicts a street view from a window during the morning in which buildings, trees, and a couple of people were captured.
"Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man" (1840) by Hippolyte Bayard
The above picture from Wikimedia Commons is widely considered to be the oldest stages photo and includes text that described the image as a corpse of “Monsieur Bayard” who “has drowned himself” because the government had recognized Daguerre, but not Bayard for the invention of the daguerreotype process and related photographic innovations. Unlike the previous surviving photos, this image was creative, told a story, and was specifically set-up thereby launching the artistic aspect of modern photography.
“The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey” (1839) by William Henry Fox Talbot
Using the calotype process that produced photographic images in seconds without leaving a visible trace of chemicals by applying liquid made of gallic acid, William Talbot produced this paper negative of the window on the abbey where he lived. Later, he produced “The Pencil of Nature,” a photographically illustrated book that demonstrated the commercial opportunity that photos provided.
First Photo of a U.S. President (1843) by Southworth & Hawes
While it was taken 14 years after the 6th president left the White House, this photo of John Quincy Adams is the first photo of a U.S. president. According to the Library of Congress, the first president to be photographed in office was James K. Polk, taken just a few years later in 1849.
"The Open Door" (1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot
This photo of a doorway with a lantern and broom as well as some vegetation is one of Talbot’s most famous and admired photos using the new technology he was putting to good use. The slightly askew symmetry, use of balancing light and shadow, combination of interior and exterior, and other elements make it an amazingly artistic expression that helped propel photography toward more creative pursuits.
"The Haystack" (1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot
This image was another historical contribution by Talbot and showed how extra exposure could brighten the mood and capture distinct shadows of everyday objects. While you may want to restore photos that have faded, Talbot wanted to use it as a mode of experimentation as he became one of the most important figures in the history of photography.
Untitled Self-Portrait (1843 or 1844) by Robert Cornelius
While we’ve already covered the earliest photo of a human earlier in the 19th century, the Public Domain Review claims that this photo by Philadelphia chemist Robert Cornelius is the first self-portrait, or selfie. Not only that, but Robert Cornelius is also the first person in the United States to open a photo studio.
First Photograph of the Sun (1845) by Leon Foucault and Hippolyte Fizeau
This was the beginning of astronomical photography because it is the oldest photo of the Sun including detailed sunspots. Prior to this, nobody knew how to manipulate light-sensitive plates to capture something so bright.
"The Valley of the Shadow of Death" (1855) by Roger Fenton
This is not only one of the earliest photos depicting war, but it’s one of the most famous. Roger Fenton took this picture on April 23, 1855, during the Crimean War and it shows cannonballs after a devastating battle. It was taken while fighting was raging around him and demonstrates the danger of war photography that continues to this day with photo and video journalists putting themselves in the line of fire to capture history.
"Gentlemen" (~1855) by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
Disderi is considered the founder of commercial technology and not only invented the paper carte de visite that enabled mass production of photographs, but later invented the twin-lens reflex camera that evolved into 8mm film cameras. This photo and many of his others showed that creating multiple poses and images could be used to improve the outcome and also made great use of contrasting blacks and whites.
"Jerusalem, Valley of Josapahat, Tomb of St. James” (circa 1856) by Auguste Salzmann
This is one of the first known examples of photo tourism and while first captured in 1854, they were only published in 1856 using salted paper print photography. It shows a Tomb in Jerusalem and the salted paper print gave a textured appearance to the stone ruins that depicted the archaeological features in unprecedented detail.
"The Two Ways of Life" by Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1857)
The “Two Ways of Life” is an ambitious photograph that was made to represent the choice between vice and virtue according to the Met Museum in New York City. To create this extraordinary photo that appears more like a painting than a photograph, Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately using more than 30 negatives meticulously combined into a single print.
"Niagara Falls from the Canadian Side" by Platt D. Babbitt (1858)
This daguerreotype shows Niagara Falls as the title suggests and is one of the earliest photos of something in such rapid motion as a waterfall.
“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” (1858) by James Wallace Black
Taken from a hot air balloon, this photo of Boston, Massachusetts is widely considered the first aerial photograph. It was captured at an altitude of 1,200 feet with Samuel Archer King navigating the hot air balloon.
"Moon" by John William Draper (1840s or 1850s)
This is the first-ever picture of the moon and the date may have predated the first image of the sun from above, but due to a 1865 fire at New York University, the exact date of the photo is unknown. However, it may have been as early as 1840 when this image was taken using the daguerreotype process.
"The Horse in Motion" by Eadweard Muybridge (1878)
Starting in 1872, Eadweard Muybridge wanted to capture movement in multiple frames, and he finally did so with this first photo of movement in 1878 that depicted a galloping horse.
Untitled Color Photograph by Thomas Sutton (1861)
Using a method suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, Thomas Sutton successfully captured the first color photograph in 1861. With a colored ribbon as the subject, it demonstrated the use of yellow, burgundy, and blue to create a marvelous image.
"The Steerage" by Alfred Stieglitz (1907)
Often considered one of the best aged photos of all time, this black and white photo by Alfred Stieglitz is one of the first works of artistic modernism by showing the contrast between the upper and lower decks that mimics social classes and gender differences using shapes and contrast.
"At the Duke of York’s Royal Military School" by Christina Broom (1908)
Thought to be the first female press photographer, Christina Bloom was known for fascinating images of the suffrage movement in the early 1900s. This image is one of her earliest surviving photos only 5 years into her career.
The Historical and Cultural Significance
The impact of these earliest photographs cannot be overstated. Some were the first in technology like the use of a long exposure time to capture the oldest photograph or the use of plates to create the first color photograph.
Others are the first in a certain style like “The Steerage” which is the first artistic example of modernism in photography. Still others are the first in different fields like aerial photography or photography of U.S. presidents.
All of these photos help not only shape the history of photographic methods, styles, and technologies, but also help to shape human history as it progressed through the industrial revolution and into the 20th century. Similarly, your own photo collection can detail your family memories , history, and an understanding of your ancestry.
Challenges of Preservation and Restoration
The conservation of old photographs is a painstaking process. To protect the images, it’s crucial that museums, collectors, and conservation experts are not only experts at organizing photos, but know how to store film, daguerreotypes, and other photo formats properly.
In some cases, old photos have undergone damage that cannot be completely repaired and it’s entirely possible that other examples of earliest photography may have been lost forever. That’s why it’s so important to not only preserve the original copies, but also to digitize these fragile artifacts by carefully working on how to digitize old photos.
The oldest photograph that is still in existence is “View from the Window at Le Gras,” but there are also the oldest photos of different types including styles, processes, techniques, and more including the first photos of the sun and moon, the first image of a U.S. president, and earliest examples of aerial photography. These types of photos shape our history and detail the progress of mankind.
It’s critical that these precious artifacts are preserved in digital format without damaging the original version. Capture has preserved family photos for over 12 million families and uses state-of-the-art equipment including a multi-million-dollar tracking and security system to ensure the greatest results that keep the original photograph in the same condition as it arrived.