One Picture, One Story – Robert Cornelius’ self-portrait, 1839

This picture is considered today as the earliest reliably dated photographic portrait ever made.

Robert Cornelius, head-and-shoulders (self-)portrait, facing front, with arms crossed”, approximate quarter plate daguerreotype, 1839.

As the french physicist Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre published in english “An Historical Account and a Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama“, the book sparked enormous interest in America in Fall 1839. Daguerre, recognized for his invention of the first commercially successful photographic technic, induced with this publication many to explore the photographic chemistry process on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of them was Robert Cornelius (1809-1893), an Dutch born American chemist. As a young manufacturer of lamps, he worked to learn the basics of the daguerreian light process on silver plate with Joseph Saxton from the Central High School in Philadelphia, himself a pionier of photographic experimentations in the USA. In the 19th century, the city was already famous for scientific research.

The technology developed at the time needed long exposure times to make successful photographs (around 30 minutes), which made it difficult for portraits. And yet Cornelius’ knowledge of metallurgy and chemistry allowed him to overcome the problem and, as a result, he managed to take a picture of himself by perfecting the photographic process described by Daguerre.

This photograph on silver plate is said to be taken outside of his place of business (on 8th Street) in Philadelphia. Hard to say today if it was the very first experimentation of the 30 years old chemist, but this picture is believed to be nonetheless the very first (self-)portrait ever made.

In 1940, Robert Cornelius opened with his partner, chemist Paul Beck Goddard, the second daguerreotype studios in America. Their improvement upon the original daguerreotype process by adding bromine to iodine enabled soon portraits to be produced more quickly. Later, those advancements were receiving international attention, especially in France where daguerreotypists wanted to apply the latest techniques to their own works.

It remais today less than 50 of Robert Cornelius’ daguerreotypes, own by the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia’s Library Company), and the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House.

Credits: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress – All rights reserved.

sources: Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Volume One, New York, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, pp. 338-340.


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