In looking over my “Historic Photo” series, which is one of the most popular features I do on this blog, I can’t believe I’ve never shown this picture. This streetscape depicts the Boulevard du Temple, one of the most important streets in Paris, on a sunny day in 1838. This is a Daguerreotype, a form of early photograph named for its inventor, Louis Daguerre, who is the person who took this picture. It’s a historic photo not just for its age and the documentation of a period of time we almost never see in photographs, but it’s the first surviving picture of a human being. Look down at the lower right and you’ll see a man standing on the corner with his foot up, having his shoes shined. The shoe-shiner is a bit of a blur but he (presumably male) is also visible. Supposedly there are other people visible in the picture though I can’t make them out.
Why was it so rare to photograph people at this time? The answer has to do with the technology of primitive photography. Shutter speeds were very slow. By one account I read, this picture took ten minutes to expose. I have my doubts it was that long–I mean, who’s going to stand in exactly the same position having one shoe shined for ten whole minutes, without at least switching to the other foot?–but it was certainly quite a while. As a result, the other people who wandered through the camera’s field of vision didn’t show up at all because they were moving too fast for their images to be seen.
This would also be true of any other moving object that didn’t sit still for however long the shutter was open. Although this street looks deserted–and one might question why one of Paris’s busiest thoroughfares was so empty in the middle of the day–in fact it was probably as bustling as it must always have been, with carts, horses and pedestrians going back and forth. They moved too fast to be caught in Daguerre’s image. As a result only the shoeshine man appears. Think about that for a minute. There may be dozens or even hundreds of people who were on the Boulevard du Temple on the day Daguerre took this, a photograph we’re still talking about 178 years later, but they are nothing more than ghosts, lost to this picture and lost to history.
I’m really fascinated by these ancient photographs that depict a world which is almost completely vanished; it goes without saying that the Boulevard du Temple looks nothing like this today. Photography is one of the most important and amazing inventions in human history, and its capacity for illuminating the past is almost unlimited. I can’t help speculating that maybe there’s a treasure trove of old photographic plates hidden somewhere, perhaps in Paris or elsewhere, that could come to light someday and give us priceless windows into the past, like this picture.