These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World

Alli - September 15, 2021

Photography has been an integral part of society for longer than people know. At its conception, humankind did not realize how much this would alter the perception of history, humanity, art, and culture. Photographs are used for so many different purposes, it’s hard to peg down a single effect it has had on culture. From examining the human condition, documenting history, sharing art, to inspiring others, photography has changed many facets of culture.

Now it’s time to step into history and see the world for what it truly was over two centuries ago. The lifespan of a photograph has changed as photography has advanced, so many of the first actual photographs may not be around today. While paintings and literature may give us a view of history through a prejudiced eye, photography gives a much more bare and honest view of history. Following are the oldest photographs known in existence.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Camera obscura (meaning “dark room” in Latin) is a box-shaped device used as an aid for drawing or entertainment. Wikimedia Commons.

The First Camera: Camera Obscura’s Fascinating Evolution

It’s important to note that the “first camera” was actually not a camera as we know it today. Camera obscura means “dark room” in Latin. Sometimes historians will also refer to this as a pinhole image. And it’s easy to see why this is a simplified term for it. The camera obscura lets light in through a small opening on one side and projects a reversed and inverted image on the other. Oftentimes, this was performed in dark rooms, as its Latin name would suggest. The surroundings had to be dark in order for the image to be clear enough. This inverted image method is very similar to how the human eye works.

This camera obscura theory can be traced back to the studies of Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism, Mozi (470 to 390 BCE). Mozi wrote that the image in a camera obscura is flipped upside down because light travels in straight lines from its source. More great minds would later build upon this by noting again how the relationship between sunlight and gaps in the leaves would project an image of the eclipsed sun onto the ground. The great mind behind this observation? The one and only Aristotle in the 4th century. This whole theory kept evolving and building until during the 9th century, Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, and musician Al-Kindi experimented with light and a pinhole.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Here you can see the theory and practice of camera obscura broken down. Bonfoton.

Camera Obscura’s Glorious Debut

There is a reason Leonardo da Vinci is lauded as one of the world’s greatest minds. The foundation of all of this work on camera obscura fueled da Vinci’s work in the Codex Atlanticus (1502). This was the first published and clear description of the theory. He published this along with many of his other famous inventions and illustrations. Over the years, Da Vinci drew around 270 diagrams of camera obscura devices in his sketchbooks.

With the buzz surrounding camera obscura through the centuries, many historians have speculated on who took advantage of some of the methods. Many art historians pose that Johannes Vermeer, the famous Dutch Baroque period painter, utilized this in some of his work. The theory is based on studies of the artworks themselves. Beneath the surface of his paintings, there are no signs that he made any corrections to his layouts as he worked. Instead, Vermeer created a shadowy image outlining the scene before painting, perhaps based on a projected image. Of course, this in no way would diminish his clear artistic prowess. But it’s interesting to see this theory brought into the art history sphere.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826, Saône-et-Loire, Bourgogne, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph On A Camera

So how did we jump from projecting images onto surfaces to making a photograph? That is, a long-lasting effect of the camera obscura theory. There were attempts made throughout history, but it wasn’t until around 1800 that progress was made on this front. Around 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliably documented, although an unsuccessful attempt at capturing camera images in permanent form. His experiments did produce detailed photograms, but he and his partner were unable to fix them to last.

In the mid-1820s, Nicéphore Niépce first managed to fix an image that was captured with a camera, but at least eight hours or even several days of exposure in the camera were required and the earliest results were very crude. However, this is the image he took. It is of Niépce’s estate in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France. To take the world’s first photograph, Niépce used bitumen of Judea (a substance used since the time of the ancient Egyptians) mixed with water and put it onto a pewter plate, which he then heated (already hardening the substance onto the plate to some degree). He then put the plate in a camera and pointed it out a second-story window. He left the camera alone for a long period of time, perhaps as long as two days. The bitumen then hardened onto the plate – less so in the places that received less sunlight.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
L’Atelier de l’artiste, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, 1837. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Reliably Dated Daguerreotype

Of course, the process that Nicéphore Niépce wasn’t perfect. But his associate that he worked closely with worked hard to perfect the methods they started. Louis Daguerre worked closely with his partner and they worked tirelessly to truly modernize their approach. However, Niépce died in 1833, before the technique was fully developed. Nonetheless, Daguerre pressed on with the help of Niépce’s son, Isidore Niépce, eventually finding that a silver-iodide plate exposed to mercury fumes could produce a photo within minutes.

A photographic process historian at the George Eastman Museum, Mark Osterman stated: “Daguerre discovered that the silver-iodide plate required only a fraction of the exposure time and that an invisible, or latent, image [could] be revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes.” But it didn’t end there. The plate could then be placed in a mixture of sodium chloride that stabilized the image. Finally, success. By 1838, Daguerre was taking photos of objects and buildings with ease. In 1839, the French government awarded Daguerre and Isidore Niépce lifetime pensions in exchange for sharing their photography technique. The use of daguerreotype photography spread quickly around the world, leading to other inventors wanting to mold the technique into something more.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Boulevard du Temple, 1838, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

3. Oldest Photograph With A Human In It

Once again, our old pal, Louis Daguerre, comes through with a photographic first. And this is when photography finally captured what seemed impossible: human life. As seen in the photograph, it may just be a mundane day, with the small figures in the lefthand corner just living their daily lives. But little did they know, they would become the first humans to be in a successful photograph.

The photograph was taken from a window in Daguerre’s studio beside the Diorama de Louis Daguerre at 5 Rue des Marais, behind the Place du Château-d’Eau. An interesting fact about this photograph is that the street shown below would normally be crowded with pedestrians, vendors and other people living their lives. However, because the method had an exposure time of ten minutes, the only people captured here were the ones who kept still for that long. So this is actually a sort of eerie photo if you think about it. So many people were there, only two were captured in the oldest image of humans.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
“Robert Cornelius, head-and-shoulders [self-]portrait, facing front, with arms crossed,” 1839, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

4. First Self-Portrait Photograph

Daguerre’s methods inspired countless people to take up this new and amazing hobby. The oldest self-portrait known is of Robert Cornelius. When Daguerre announced his invention of a photographic method to the French Academy of Sciences in August 1839, the news spread like wildfire. That October, a young Philadelphian, Robert Cornelius, working out of doors to take advantage of the light, made this head-and-shoulders self-portrait using a box fitted with a lens from an opera-glass.

Cornelius was an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia. But on that day in October, he decided to make history. He set up his camera at the back of the family store in Philadelphia. Cornelius took the image by removing the lens cap and then running into frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back of the image, he wrote “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Dorothy Catherine Draper, John William Draper, 1839-1840. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Surviving Photograph Of A Woman (with her eyes open)

John William Draper, a British/American physician and chemist, was born May 5, 1811. During his life, Draper seemed to strive to be at the forefront of discovery and invention. He, along with many others listed here, was inspired by Daguerre’s studies and work. And he wanted to see what this invention meant for science. However, he also was a man with a personal life.
At first glance, you may believe the woman he took a photo of would be his wife. However, Draper featured another prominent female in his life: his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper. But there were still limits to photographing a person. One of which being that the subject needed to be incredibly still for the longer exposure times. Luckily, Dorothy was up for the challenge. She sat unblinking for a 65-second exposure – giving us a beautifully haunting photograph and the first photo of a woman with her eyes open. Draper dusted her face with white flour to enhance the contrast. The result actually worked. Dorothy’s face is surprisingly natural. The Drapers still go down in history as being the oldest photo of a woman.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
1840, rooftop observatory at NYU, New York, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of The Moon

Once again, nobody get in the way of John William Draper and his determination to make history. Not only was he the first to photograph a woman with her eyes open, but he is the first to successfully photograph the moon in 1840. Did we mention that Draper was also a professor at NYU? Not only that, but Draper’s portfolio was full of amazing feats. Given his interest in medicine, chemistry, and evolution, it is surprising that Draper is best known today for a book on quite a different subject, published in 1874. It was called A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, where he tried to make the case that, throughout history, science has tried to expand our horizons and the church has tried to confine them, that science and religion have always been at war.

Additionally, Draper was a co-discoverer of the first basic law of photochemistry called the Grotthuss-Draper Law. It says that light must be absorbed by a system to bring about photochemical change. He also gave us the so-called Draper point. He realized that any object, regardless of material, glows dull red at 977oF. That was important in the evolution of quantum mechanics. Of course, pictured above is another one of his great feats: the first image of the moon. Daguerreotypes do not have a long shelf life unless they are carefully preserved from the moment they are taken, so the lunar image has suffered in the last 180 years, but it is still there, a significant astrophotographic first.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Hoax Photograph or Deep Social Analysis?

Do not fret. The man in this photo is still alive… or was when it was taken – but many are unsure of his intention here. Many have awarded him the spot of “First Hoax Photograph”. But the man in the image, Hippolyte Bayard, may have had a deeper meaning than just posing as though he had just passed. In this photograph, Bayard presents himself as a victim who ended his own life by drowning, “provoked by the failure of the French authorities to recognize his own discovery of the photographic process as equal to Daguerre’s pioneering work.”

According to one account: “Earlier in 1839, Bayard put together what is considered by some to be the first-ever photographic exhibition, in an auction room in Paris. This historical context suggests that the self-portrait can be read as a crossroads at which issues of recognition, authorship, display, visibility, invisibility, truth and illusion meet and play off of one another.” You can read more about this fascinating misunderstanding of historical context in ‘The Impossible Photograph: Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man’.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photograph of President John Quincy Adams, 1843, United States. Wikimedia Commons.

Oldest Photograph Of A US President

John Quincy Adams, son of John and Abigail Adams, served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 to 1829. A member of multiple political parties over the years, he also served as a diplomat, a Senator, and a member of the House of Representatives. This image of John Quincy Adams is the earliest known photo of a US President to still exist and was taken in March 1843 when he was 75 years old and serving as a Representative of Massachusetts’s 8th congressional district, 14 years after the end of his presidency.

There are multiple arguments for which photograph is the oldest, but the general consensus agrees that John Quincy Adams was, in fact, the subject of the oldest photograph of a US President. But it is generally accepted that the one above is the original first photo of the president. Dating from 1843, the photograph of President John Quincy Adams is a unique daguerreotype and was produced by artist Philip Haas just four years after Louis Daguerre’s radical invention was revealed to the world.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Edinburgh Ale, 1844, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Photograph Of People Drinking

We see the method of photos begin to shift some throughout the mid-1800s. Calotype, also called talbotype, was an early photographic technique invented by William Henry Fox Talbot of Great Britain in the 1830s. In this technique, a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride was exposed to light in a camera obscura; those areas hit by light became dark in tone, yielding a negative image. The revolutionary aspect of the process lay in Talbot’s discovery of a chemical (gallic acid) that could be used to “develop” the image on the paper—i.e., accelerate the silver chloride’s chemical reaction to the light it had been exposed to.

In this image, you can see friends enjoying a cold one and posing for this calotype image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Describes it perfectly: “A timeless ritual—a jovial meeting over beers—is perfectly rendered by the photographic team of D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson. In the seemingly impromptu snapshot, a mirthful Hill has just risen from the table to stand by George Bell, the surgeon turned social reformer, who almost manages to keep his cool. The writer and renowned stained-glass artist, James Ballantine—in an attempt at seriousness—clutches a book, but struggles to suppress a laugh, while Adamson, operating the camera, remains outside the frame…” It is still heartwarming to see the oldest photo of people just enjoying each other’s company.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Image of the Sun, 1845, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of The Sun

It’s hard to believe that after photographs became more common, people were so quickly able to apply the new technology to capturing advanced images. The first photo of the sun, shown above, was made by French physicists Hippolyte Fizeau and Léon Foucault. They, like many others of this time, used a daguerreotype. More than 160 years ago, their seemingly simple black and white photo was remarkable for depicting our sun not as an overwhelming, ungraspable celestial body, but as another star in the sky. Our star in the sky.

And something even more surprising – you can even see the sunspots. Sunspots are caused by disturbances in the Sun’s magnetic field welling up to the photosphere, the Sun’s visible “surface”. The powerful magnetic fields in the vicinity of sunspots produce active regions on the Sun, which in turn frequently spawn disturbances such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). However, even though this is the first time it was captured in photograph doesn’t mean people hadn’t known about them. The sunspots were discovered in the early 1600s.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
1848, Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Photograph Of New York City

We know New York City as the hustling, bustling hub of economy, business and fashion. But that wasn’t always the case. As the oldest photo of NYC depicts, it was more like the Old West than the urban super center we recognized today. We’re not sure of who took this photograph, but it was taken in 1848 of the Upper West Side, known as Manhattan today.

While this image shows a quaint and quiet rural life, New York City grew quickly. New York, with a population of 96,000 in 1810, surged far beyond its rivals, reaching a population of 1,080,000 in 1860, compared to 566,000 in Philadelphia, 212,000 in Baltimore and 178,000 in Boston. But the Big Apple had its fair share of struggles during this time. From cholera outbreaks to fires, the growth and vitalization of the iconic city was hard won.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
View of a Cheyenne village at Big Timbers, Mathew B. Brady, 1853-1860. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Known Picture Of A Native American Village

The Cheyenne were North American Plains Indians who spoke an Algonquian language and inhabited the regions around the Platte and Arkansas rivers during the 19th century. Before 1700 the Cheyenne lived in what is now central Minnesota, where they farmed, hunted, gathered wild rice, and made pottery. They later occupied a village of earth lodges on the Cheyenne River in North Dakota; it was probably during this period that they acquired horses and became more dependent on the buffalo for food.

This particular image was taken from anywhere between 1853-1860, the exact date is unclear. But it was taken by early American photographer, Mathew B. Brady. He is best known for his depictions for the American Civil War. As more and more white settlers pushed west in the 1850s, the Cheyenne, along with their new allies, began to rebel against the pioneers, as well as the U.S. Army. When gold was discovered in Colorado, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was broken and the territory that had been ceded to them was taken away. This is the oldest known photo of a Native American Village.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It, October 13, 1860, Boston, Massachusetts, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Aerial Photograph

*This is actually not the first aerial photograph. Photographer Nadar shot the first aerial photo, but it was lost. Therefore, this photo by James Wallace Black is considered to be the first aerial photograph. The photograph was taken over the iconic American city of Boston, Massachusetts. Many historic things happened in the hallowed city of Boston, and it landed another by taking its history to the sky.

Once again, the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it best: “Best known for his photographs of Boston after the devasting fire of 1872, Black launched his solo career in 1860 with the production of a series of aerial photographs taken from Samuel King’s hot-air balloon the “Queen of the Air.” Black’s photographs caught the attention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and professor of medicine at Harvard, who gave this photograph its title. In July 1863, Holmes wrote in the “Atlantic Monthly”: “Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys.”

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Tartan Ribbon, 1861, London, England. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Color Photograph

While the magic of photography ignited a sense of wonder in people around the world, there was one key component missing from the images: color. Most of us don’t see the world in black and white. So there was always the issue of not capturing the true essence of people, places and objects in an image. However, this changed in 1861. While Sir Isaac Newton pioneered the scientific understanding of color and light, it would be many years before this could be captured in photographs. Nearly 200 years later, in 1861, a young Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, conducted an experiment to show that, in fact, all colors can be made by an appropriate mixture of red, green and blue light. Many media enthusiasts may now know this to be the RGB spectrum.

According to the Science Media Museum, “Maxwell took three separate lantern slides of a tartan ribbon through red, green and blue filters. These slides were then projected through the same filters using three separate magic lanterns. When the three images were carefully superimposed on the screen, they combined to make a colored image which was a recognizable reproduction of the original. While Maxwell’s experiments demonstrated clearly the basic principles of color photography, in practice, his demonstration should not have worked at all. Although the physicist didn’t know it, the photographic emulsions that he used were insensitive to red light. Fortunately for Maxwell, the red cloth in the ribbon reflected ultraviolet light. This was invisible to the eye but did register on the emulsion.”

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
View of Agen, 1877, Agen, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Colored Landscape Photograph

While the fundamental theory of color photography may have been understood, a practical method of color photography had not been achieved. Some experimenters pursued the idea of a direct method of color reproduction which did not rely on mixing primary colors. In 1891 Gabriel Lippmann, a professor of physics at the Sorbonne, demonstrated a color process which was based on the phenomenon of light interference—the interaction of light waves that produces the brilliant colors seen in soap bubbles. This process won Lippmann a Nobel Prize in 1908 and was marketed commercially for a short time around the turn of the century.

In this photograph of the French countryside in 1877, we can see the more rudimentary methods of color photography used. Photographer, Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron, was a pioneer in color photography and was the mastermind behind the process that created this photo. After writing an unpublished paper setting forth his basic concepts in 1862, he worked on developing practical processes for color photography on the three-color principle, using both additive and subtractive methods In 1868 he patented his ideas (French Patent No. 83061) and in 1869 he published them in Les couleurs en photographie, solution du problème. The discovery of dye sensitization by Hermann Wilhelm Vogel in 1873 greatly facilitated the initial three-color analysis on which all of Ducos de Hauron’s methods depended.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, 1878, Palo Alto, California, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First High-Speed Photographic Series

“The Horse in Motion” is a well-known and groundbreaking series of images. It is a series of cabinet cards by Eadweard Muybridge, including six cards that each show a sequential series of six to twelve “automatic electro-photographs” depicting the movement of a horse. Muybridge shot the photographs in June 1878. An additional card reprinted the single image of the horse “Occident” trotting at high speed, which had previously been published by Muybridge in 1877.

The series became the first example of chronophotography, an early method to photographically record the passing of time, mainly used to document the different phases of locomotion for scientific study. It formed an important step in the development of motion pictures. To actually view this “photograph” the way it was meant to be viewed, you can find it on YouTube.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
First Photograph Of Lightning. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of Lightning

As we know well from learning about early photography, exposure times were extremely long. If somebody blinked or moved, it could greatly change the quality of the image. However, this scientific and photographic feat changed everything. William Jennings was a Philadelphia photographer who experimented with color photography and artificial lightning. But he accomplished what many could not: catching lightning on camera. It’s amazing to see the oldest image of lightning.

Lightning happens when the negative charges (electrons) in the bottom of the cloud are attracted to the positive charges (protons) in the ground. Before 1882, lightning had never successfully been captured. Jennings made some significant modifications to its structure which enabled him to photograph lightning. Jennings’ addition of a yellow color filter to his camera, along with the development of the hot air balloon, made it possible for the adventurous photographer to snap sharp images of lightning. He was recognized for this achievement by receiving the Wetherill Medal in the 1930s.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photograph of a tornado, 1884, Garnett, Kansas, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of A Tornado

I don’t suppose anybody is too shocked to discover the first image of a tornado was captured in Kansas. After all, the state is known for its tumultuous weather both in meteorology and pop culture. In the Wizard of Oz, it was a tornado that swept poor Dorothy and Toto into a fantastical world. Kansas has seen an average of 88 tornadoes annually over the past 30 years, according to the weather service. However, the Sunflower State only recorded 17 in 2020, its lowest annual total in more than 40 years.

The first known photograph of a tornado was taken on April 26, 1884, in Anderson County, Kansas – 133 years ago, according to the Kansas Historical Society. The tornado’s slow progress allowed local fruit farmer and amateur photographer A.A. Adams time to assemble his cumbersome box camera and capture this singular image. Positioned near the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Adams was standing just 14 miles from the cyclone.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Roundhay Garden Scene by Louis Le Prince, 1888, Leeds, Great Britain. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest/First “Moving Picture”

There is nothing more moving than seeing a moving picture. Today, our high-quality cameras and technology allow our motion pictures to be larger than life with CGI, animation, and top-of-the-line graphics. But when it first came out, the simplicity of the moving picture still captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world. We already saw the beginning of moving pictures with the debut of “The Horse in Motion”, but this took it a step further in the movie world.

The Roundhay Garden Scene, a short film shot by French inventor Louis Le Prince, is considered the earliest surviving motion picture by the Guinness Book of Records. Le Prince made the film using a single lens camera and Eastman’s paper film at 12 frames per second and runs for 2.11 seconds. According to Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, it was filmed at Oakwood Grange, the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley, in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England on October 14, 1888. You can see the actual moving picture on YouTube.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Unknown photographer, Burial site of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., ca. 1847. Image courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Oldest Photographs of War

Born in 1811, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., is both a huge part of history and an unknown part. While he may not necessarily have been a historical figure that many people know and admire, he accomplished a first after life. The first photographs of war were made in 1847, when an unknown American photographer produced a series of fifty daguerreotypes depicting scenes from the Mexican-American war in Saltillo, Mexico. This depicted the gravesite of Lt. Col. Henry Clay, Jr.

While his father, Henry Clay, Sr., was a prominent political figure and in opposition of Andrew Jackson. His son perished in the war and had not achieved the same amount of recognition his father had. The photographer that captured his gravesite allowed Clay, Jr., to live on in a more melancholy way. But this was definitely a major photographic moment in history.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photograph of early life in Appalachia. Photograph by Margaret Morley, circa 1913. JSTOR.

Oldest Documented Life in Appalachia

As somebody who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, I need to begin this one with a proper teaching of how you pronounce it. It is my civic duty to inform all of you that if you go to the mountains of Appalachia and pronounce it “appa·lay·shuhn”, everybody will automatically know that you are not from there. The proper pronunciation is “a·puh·la·chn”. And any true born spirit from the Appalachian Mountains will make sure you know it. Now that you’ve been properly schooled on how to say it. Let’s get down to the actual topic.

Margaret Morley and William Barnhill were some of the earliest regional photographers in southern Appalachia. Morley published The Carolina Mountains as an eye-opening look into the everyday lives of the people of Appalachia. She focused specifically on the Western North Carolina region. Her intention was to highlight their lives as straightforwardly and honestly as possible. She and Barnhill showed great passion for bringing what they saw in this region to the rest of the world. Although, the context of their lives and simplicity of spirit had many other Americans sensationalizing the Appalachian Mountains into many of the stereotypes we see today.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Taken on a 1975 Soviet mission to Venus. Courtesy of NSSDC.

Oldest photo of another planet’s surface

Pictured above is the oldest known photo of another planet’s surface. While it is blurry and difficult to see, it’s amazing that technology in the 1970s allowed humans to capture a clear image of another planet’s surface. Venera 9, was a Soviet uncrewed space mission to Venus. It consisted of an orbiter and a lander. It was launched on June 8, 1975, at 02:38:00 UTC and had a mass of 4,936 kilograms (10,882 lb). The orbiter was the first spacecraft to orbit Venus, while the lander was the first to return images from the surface of another planet.

The lander was encased in a spherical shell before landing to help protect it from the heat of entry as it slowed from 10.7 km/s to 150 m/s. This sphere was then separated with explosive bolts and a three-domed parachute was deployed which slowed the lander further to 50 m/s at an altitude of 63 km above the planet. It was the first spacecraft to return an image from the surface of another planet. Many of the instruments began working immediately after touchdown and the cameras were operational 2 minutes later. These instruments revealed a smooth surface with numerous stones. The lander measured a light level of 14,000 lux, similar to that of Earth in full daylight but no direct sunshine. They not only captured Venus for the first time, they’ll forever be known as supplying the world with the oldest image of another planet’s surface.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photo of three-month-old son. Russell A. Kirsch. Public Domain.

First digital image

We couldn’t talk about the history of the oldest known photographs and not highlight our more modern photographic feats. While not the same as some of the other “oldest” photos, this marked the dawning of a new photography age: digital images. Russell A. Kirsch is credited as the man who produced the first digital image in 1957. While working at the National Bureau of Standards, Kirsch and his team developed a digital image scanner. The first image scanned was of a photo of Kirsch’s three-month-old son, captured at one bit per pixel. It’s considered to be one of the 100 photographs that changed the world.

Kirsch and his colleagues at NBS, who had developed the nation’s first programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC), created a rotating drum scanner and programming that allowed images to be fed into it. The first image scanned was a head-and-shoulders shot of Kirsch’s three-month-old son Walden. This was the first step into digitizing the art of photography.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
This is the first image file that was tested for uploading the internet. Silvio De Gennaro.

First photo to be published to the Internet

Once again, this one couldn’t be left off the list just because it isn’t the “oldest” photo in the world. The internet has revolutionized how we do everything. From how we communicate to how we share ideas, work, and memories, the internet is ever-growing. But at its infancy, it was not the same as it is now. There were new baby steps the internet needed to take. And one of them was testing out the capability of uploading photos.

On July 18, 1992, the first picture was uploaded on the web. The photo that captured four slickly dressed women was posted by Tim Burners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. The photo is of an all-woman comedy group. The photograph was taken by Silvio de Gennaro as a promotional image for the women’s show. They had no idea that their small-time act would make it into the history books as one of the most important milestones for sharing media.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our Sources:

Business Insider – The first photograph ever taken was almost lost to history

Live Science – What Is the World’s Oldest Photograph?

Wikipedia – Boulevard du Temple

Wikipedia – Robert Cornelius

National Portrait Gallery – Welcome to the Portrait Gallery, John Quincy Adams

Met Museum – Edinburgh Ale: James Ballantine, Dr. George Bell, and D.O. Hill

Ranker – Stunning Aerial Photography of Early Cities Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before

The Galileo Projects – Sunspots

Encyclopedia Britannica – Cheyenne

Wikipedia – Treaty of Fort Laramie

Science Media Museum – A Short History of Color Photography

Wikipedia – Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron

Explore KY History – Henry Clay, Jr.

Wikipedia – Venera 9

W3 – Tim Berners-Lee