neuhauser strasse munich 1839

This amazing picture is one of the earliest photographs ever taken in Germany. It depicts Neuhauser Strasse, one of the “main drags” in the old city of Munich, in what was then the state of Bavaria (Germany was not a unified country until 1871). At first glance it appears to have been taken on a rainy day, or it could simply be that the ancient silver of the plate combined with smudges and water-marks over the 176 years since this photo was taken simply make it look like it’s raining. Many of the earliest photos look like this.

This picture was taken by Franz von Kobell and Carl August von Steinheil, two scientists and authors active in Bavaria at the time. Von Kobell was a mineralogist and von Steinheil a physicist and engineer. They liked to tinker with things, and one of the things they tried to do was build a better camera. Photography got its start in France in the 1820s but it was a very difficult and cumbersome process. At this time, the late 1830s, a new form of photography called the Daguerreotype was just on the verge of becoming popular. This would revolutionize photography, but it hadn’t happened yet.

You can see a lot about 1830s Germany in this photo. The old world architecture is amazing; must urban spaces in Germany looked like this until extensive bombing destroyed most of the cities during World War II. I can see several carts whose cargoes are covered with white canvases or tarps of some kind (one clue that may indicate in fact it was raining). Although the street appears to be deserted, there are people in this photo. I see what looks like two women toward the lower right, and some dark smudges farther up which are probably people walking. The shutter speeds of cameras of this era were extremely long, and a human being wouldn’t show up clearly on a picture like this unless he or she stood extremely still for a long time.

It’s amazing to think that, at the time this picture was taken, Martin Van Buren was President of the United States, steamships and locomotives were cutting-edge technology and anyone who had reached middle age could remember the 18th century from personal experience. This is a pretty amazing world to see in a photograph!

This photo is in the public domain.